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High Altitude Sun Protection: Best Sunscreens and Everyday Tips

How does living at a higher elevation affect the risk of sun damage?

dermatologist-boulder-medical-centerLiving in beautiful, sunny Colorado can be both a blessing and a curse when it comes to our health. Benefits of moderate sun exposure may include more robust bones, improved moods during all seasons, and a stronger immune system.

However, living at a higher elevation also exposes us to approximately 25 percent more ultraviolet radiation from the sun when compared to sea level. While we enjoy a high number of Colorado sun-filled days, it is essential to be aware of the increased long-term risks of high-altitude sun exposure.

Ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the primary cause of all skin cancers. Years of exposure to the sun causes hyperpigmentation, thinness, ninety percent of wrinkles.

How can I protect my skin at higher altitudes?

Here are a few ways you can avoid damage and decrease your risk of skin cancer :

  • While sunscreen helps filter UV damage, there is no such thing as a proper “sunblock.” As a dermatology professional, I consider sunscreen a backup measure to protect skin that cannot be covered by physical protection, such as clothing, hats, and sunglasses. Light-colored, long-sleeve shirts and pants work well and are often more accessible than applying sunscreen and remembering to reapply every one to two hours continually;
  • Self-tanning creams are fine, but from a dermatology standpoint, tanning beds are not. The link between tanning bed use and increased risk of melanoma, the most dangerous form of skin cancer, has been firmly established;
  • Ultraviolet radiation from the sun does pass through the glass, so remember to wear sunscreen when driving or working near windows. Sun damage often occurs more on the left side of the face due to driving;
  • In addition to sun avoidance and sun protection, it is essential to have your skin checked regularly by your primary care physician and dermatologist.

What are the best techniques for applying sunscreen?

It’s essential to apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outside. This enables the ingredients to bind to the skin thoroughly. A good rule of thumb is to use an amount equal to the size of a shot glass to your entire body. Reapplying sunscreen is as important as your first application. After that, reapply every one to two hours, especially if you are sweating or swimming. A few additional sunscreen tips:

  • Choose an SPF of 30. Numbers above 30 do not offer a significant increase in UV protection. It is better to reapply than use a high SPF;
  • Choose a sunscreen with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as ingredients. These mineral-based ingredients also offer physical UV protection, meaning they form a barrier on the skin that reflects UV radiation rather than absorbing it. As a result, sunscreen with these ingredients also protects you from UVA and UVB, satisfying broad-spectrum protection requirements. In addition, zinc and titanium tend to be less irritating than chemical sunscreens, an essential consideration if you have sensitive skin.

What are the best sunscreens for the body and face?

There are many great brands of sunscreens available, so you may have to experiment to find one that agrees with your skin. Here are some sunscreen brands containing zinc and/or titanium and where you can find them:

  • Vanicream: Available from Boulder Medical Center pharmacy
  • Alba Kids/Mineral:  Pharmaca, Whole Foods
  • Goddess Garden Organics:  Pharmaca, Whole Foods
  • Badger Balm:  Pharmaca, Whole Foods
  • Thinksport:  Pharmaca, Whole Foods

A few additional recommendations if you are looking for a lighter daily moisturizer with zinc and/or titanium for your face:

  • Cerave Face Moisturizing Lotion:  Boulder Medical Center pharmacy, Target, Walgreens
  • Eucerin Daily Protective:  Boulder Medical Center pharmacy, Target, Walgreens
  • Josie Maran Argan Daily Moisturizer:  Sephora, Amazon
  • John Master’s Organic:  Pharmaca
  • Juice Beauty:  Pharmaca
  • KLAR– Boulder company produces certified organic sunscreen that dries clear on most skin tones, including multi-ethnic skin. Biodegradable and reef-safe
  • Obagi Matte:  Boulder Medical Center Dermatology department


Check your local UV Index Report for the strength of the sun’s UV rays in your area. Here are a few links to local reports:

About Dermatology at Boulder Medical Center

The Boulder Medical Center dermatology team specializes in comprehensive preventive care and treatment for all skin conditions.

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