Avoiding raccoon face while on the slopes
Whenever folks venture forth into ski country these days, they are generally greeted with a mountain of mountain-based skinny so extensive it’s like coming to altitude re-education camp. You can’t swing a dead cat above 8,000 feet without finding yourself staring down a plethora of lists that are dominated by the words “DO” and “DO NOT.” We are told in no uncertain terms to avoid alcohol during your first 24 hours at altitude, like ” right ” everyone’s going to heed that advice while on vacation at a ski resort. We are told to take it easy while our body adjusts to the thin air. We are told about the major bummer presented by frostbite. And we are told in no uncertain terms by every magazine article and piece of tourism-based promotional literature that has ever been penned in the mountains to slather sunscreen on every exposed section of skin, lest that exposed skin get fried to a crisp within about 15 seconds.
Better advice has never been given. Yet, judging from the preponderance during ski season of beet-red raccoon faces adorning every apres-ski bar in Colorado every single day during ski season, it is fair to surmise that this advice is rarely heeded by the toasted masses.
There is, of course, reason for this. First, it’s often cold as snot out there on the slopes, even on a sunny day. And, second, only a very small part of the body ” the face ” is exposed to the sun while skiing and snowboarding. So what’s the big deal?
The big deal is that there are all of these nasty little ultraviolet rays ” UVA and UVB ” making their way through the Earth’s atmosphere directly toward your exposed nose and cheeks. Those rays, left unchecked, are the leading cause of the fastest-growing and most extensive form of cancer known to man: skin cancer. And, fact of the matter is, Colorado’s High Country is a favorite figurative target of UVA and UVB rays. Colorado is where UVA and UVB rays go on vacation.
According to the Centers for Disease Control, Colorado ranks in the benign-sounding “third interval” of ski-cancer rates ” meaning that between 17.6 and 23.6 people per hundred thousand get skin cancer in Colorado. That is among the highest rates in the country and, as bad as it sounds, it does not necessarily tell the whole story, as it relates only reported cases within a state. People whose sun-exposed time in Colorado helped put them over the skin-cancer top but who live elsewhere do not show up in Colorado’s statistics. And there is more. Colorado also falls within the CDC’s “third interval” when it comes to skin-cancer deaths ” between 2.8 and 3.2 per hundred thousand. While it may be tempting to look at those statistics from the glass-half-full perspective, doing so would not necessarily be wise. Colorado boasts two stat-skewing risk factors that might very well have your name written all over them.
First, altitude exacerbates the ferocity of UVA and UVB rays. According to myskincancerclinics.com, UV exposure at a mere 6,000 feet is as much as 30 percent higher than at sea level because fewer UV rays are filtered out by the atmosphere, because, well, there’s less atmosphere. At 12,000 feet, UV exposure rates can be 50 percent higher than at sea level. Sizzle, sizzle.
Second, reflective surfaces, such as SNOW, can reflect up to 95 percent of UV rays right back up onto your very receptive face. Think of the ski slopes as one big UV convection oven. And don’t think for a moment that cold temperatures and cloud cover eliminate the risk. As much as 80 percent of UV rays can penetrate cloud cover, and temperature effects UV ray penetration not one bit.
And here’s the thing: Even one serious sunburn can increase one’s chances of contracting skin cancer exponentially. Yet, it is estimated that less than half of all people who are exposed to the sun sufficiently protect themselves.
The best way people can protect themselves from overexposure to UV rays, of course, is to remain indoors during daylight hours. Since most people who choose to live or vacation in Colorado do so at least partially because of a primal desire to be outdoors as much as possible while the sun is up, that strategy is suspect. The next best way is for folks to cover exposed skin. On the slopes when it’s a minus-15 wind-chill, this is of course easily achieved, except for the face area, which then must be covered with sunscreen with a sun protection factor ” SPF ” of at least 15. SPF is a laboratory measure of the effectiveness of sunscreen. The measurement indicates the time a person with sunscreen applied can be exposed to sunlight before getting burned relative to the time a person without sunscreen can be exposed. For example, someone who ordinarily would burn after 12 minutes in the sun would expect to burn after 120 minutes if protected by sunscreen with an SPF of 10. In practice, SPF numbers are hardly absolute. Matter of fact, they have a high bunk factor. They depend upon a variety of variables, such as the skin type of the user, the amount and frequency of application, whether or not the person is sweating or participating in water-related activities and the amount of sunscreen actually absorbed by the skin.
SPF numbers are also suspect because they do a far better job of blocking UVB rays than they do UVA rays, and UVA rays still suck mightily on the skin-cancer front. A 2003 study indicated that sunscreens rated SPF-30 and higher may translate to significantly lower levels of UVA protection. Crap! This grim reality has led some to suggest that all sunscreen contain labeling restrictions, especially as more and more sunscreens are starting to advertise all-day protection and sweat-and-water resistance. Some countries use completely different rating systems for sun blocks. And some countries require sunscreen labeling that explains exactly what the product does and does not do. (Stunningly, there has been industry opposition to such labeling in the U.S.).
The next question is: How on earth does sunblock actually work? After all, all those nasty rays from outer space still make contact with the exposed skin. Well, according to some smart people, the principal ingredients in sunscreens are usually “aromatic molecules conjugated with carbonyl groups,” which allow the molecules to absorb high-energy UV rays and release the energy as lower-energy rays. This can be translated as: light-scattering.
Some sunscreen ingredients also contain materials, most frequently para amino benzoic acid (PABA), which actually absorb UVA and UVB wavelengths. The absorbed radiation is then re-emitted as heat by the vibrational de-excitation of the exited state of the PABA. In other words: sunscreens work via a combination of magic and B.S.!
OK, now that we have all that cleared up, here’s the main thing to remember about all this while you’re enjoying your ski vacation in the Colorado High Country: You need to apply your sunscreen well before being exposed to sunlight and you need to reapply it every few hours. Do not believe any advertising claims about all-day protection.
M. John Fayhee is Editor-at-Large for the Mountain Gazette. His eighth book, “A Colorado Mountain Companion,” will be published by Westcliffe next year. Contact him with corrections, clarifications and observations at firstname.lastname@example.org.