Why you should protect your skin against the elements

Real countrymen tend not to worry about their skin, and especially not in winter, but they should, says William Townley, a consultant plastic surgeon at London’s Guy’s and St Thomas’ Hospital.

As shadows lengthen and cold winds bite, countrymen bundle up with thermal layers, scarves and hats. They hardly ever worry about their face, however. To the shot taking aim at pheasant at the end of the season earlier this month or the hardy fisherman waiting patiently on a snow-pocked bank, winter sun feels like a benign friend, but it has an unwelcome sting. UVB radiation decreases in the winter months, so sunburn is rare—unless you’re in the mountains —but harmful UVA rays are present all the time, even on an overcast day.

There are two types of rays—ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB)—and although the short-wave UVB rays can cause sunburn and potentially cancer, it’s the longer-wave UVA rays that penetrate more deeply and are responsible for the dramatic changes associated with facial ageing. Without sun protection, just a few minutes of exposure every day can cause noticeable changes to the skin: freckles, age spots, spider veins, rough and leathery skin, fine wrinkles that disappear when stretched, loose skin and a blotchy complexion can all be traced to sun exposure.

Insights into the ageing effects of sunlight have been gleaned from studies of identical twins, such as Margaret and Susie. The sisters have led very different lives: Margaret spends, on average, an extra 10 hours per week outside and the difference in their appearance is striking. Margaret has accumulated numerous sunspots, freckles, fine lines and wrinkles, all of which are largely absent in her sun-averse sister. At the age of 61, there is an estimated skin-age disparity of 10–12 years between the two.

Skin cancer is on the increase in the UK and UV radiation is the main culprit. Cases of its deadliest form, melanoma, have more than quadrupled since 1975. The disease takes many forms, but the first signs can include a non-healing blemish that may be crusty, raised or ulcerating (a basal cell or squamous-cell carcinoma) or an irregular pigmented mole that has recently changed in appearance (a melanoma). The face is often affected, with the nose, lower lip, ears and scalp being particularly common sites.

Fortunately, skin cancer is curable if caught early. This means checking regularly for suspicious lesions, especially in the hard-to-see spots, such as the back, scalp and behind the ears. It’s perfectly normal to accumulate moles and sunspots over time, but it’s important to be able to tell when something is abnormal. A simple rule is to look for the ‘ugly duckling’—the mole that stands out from the field. Having a rogue mole checked out without delay by a GP or skin-cancer specialist is vital.

Recommended videos for you

To give your skin maximum protection, wear sunscreen all-year-round. In winter, choose a cream with a minimum sun protection factor (SPF) of 15 that provides broad-spectrum protection and will filter out both UVA and UVB radiation. The key UVA-blocking ingredients to look for are zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, ecamsule and avobenzone. Don’t forget areas such as underneath the chin and the nose.

Protect your scalp, ears and forehead by wearing a wide-brimmed hat (dark colours are best) and UV-blocking sunglasses with wraparound frames.

Snow reflects up to 80% of the sun’s UV light, so the rays hit you twice when you’re out on a ski slope, further increasing the risk of skin cancer and premature ageing. The lower lip is a particularly neglected area and a common site for squamous-cell skin cancers. Apply a generous layer of SPF15 lip balm before heading out.

Five good face protectors

  • Soltan Once Face Moisturising Suncare Cream (SPF30), £11 for 50ml from Boots (0345 070 8090; www.boots.com)
  • Cellular Protection Sun Cream (SPF50), £38.95 for 100ml from The Organic Pharmacy (0844 800 8399; www.theorganicpharmacy.com)
  • Glo therapeutics Facial Moisturizer (SPF40), £28 for 60ml from Effortless Skin (0800 014 8338; www.effortlessskin.com)
  • Heliocare Silk Gel (SPF30), £25 for 50ml from Face the Future (0113–282 3181; www.facethefuture.co.uk)
  • SunSense Daily Face (SPF50+), £20.99 for a 75g tube and £39.99 for a 200ml bottle from Crawford Healthcare (01565 654920; www.crawfordhealthcare.com)