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Sun Protection at Higher Altitudes

A dermatology Q&A: best suncreens and the truth about protecting yourself from the sun

Featuring Kim Guthke, PA-C
Boulder Medical Center Dermatology Department


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

dermatologist-boulder-medical-centerKim Guthke: Living in beautiful, sunny Boulder County can be both a blessing and a curse for our health. Benefits of moderate sun exposure may include stronger bones, improved moods during all seasons, and a more robust immune system. Unfortunately, living at a higher elevation also exposes us to approximately 25 percent more ultraviolet radiation when compared to sea level. Hence, while we enjoy a high number of sun-filled days here in Colorado, it is important to be aware of the increased long-term risks to our skin and health that come with high altitude sun exposure.

Exposure to ultraviolet radiation from the sun is the primary cause of all skin cancers. Moreover, through years of sun exposure our skin becomes wrinkled, hyper-pigmented and thin. Ninety percent of wrinkles are caused by sun exposure alone.

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


Can you share a few simple tips for protecting skin at higher altitudes?

Kim Guthke: 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 true “sunblock”. As a dermatology professional, I consider sunscreen as a back-up 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 easier than applying sunscreen and remembering to continually reapply every one to two hours;
  • 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 caner, has been firmly established;
  • Ultraviolet radiation from the sun does pass through glass, so remember to wear sunscreen when driving or if you work 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 very important to have your skin checked on a regular basis by your primary care physician and/or dermatologist.

What are the best techniques for applying sunscreen?

Kim Guthke:  It’s important to apply sunscreen 15 minutes before going outside. This enables the ingredients to fully bind to the skin. I suggest an amount equal to the size of a shot glass to cover your entire body. Reapplying sunscreen is as important as your first application; 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. Sunscreen with these ingredients also protect you from both UVA and UVB — satisfying the requirement for broad spectrum protection. Zinc and titanium tend to be less irritating than chemical sunscreens, an important consideration if you have sensitive skin.

What are the best sunscreens for the body and face?

Kim Guthke:  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 that can be worn on 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

About Kim Guthke, PA-C
Dermatology Department at Boulder Medical Center

As a physician assistant, Kim has been an integral part of the Boulder Medical Center dermatology team for the past 15 years. She enjoys counseling patients on skin care and skin cancer prevention along with performing skin checks; minor skin cancer removals; rash, acne and wart treatments; and anti-aging treatments such as laser and Botox.

Her philosophy of care is to examine patients thoroughly and explain as much as possible so they can stay involved in their own care. “I often discuss the long-term health effects that excessive sun exposure can have on the skin and review the latest information about sun protection,” she says.

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