Growing up in a beach town, I always knew I had to wear sunscreen at the beach (mind you, no one told me for years I had to wear it every day, regardless of where I went) to avoid a sunburn.
But I hate the beach (seriously, how can you enjoy yourself with all that sand getting absolutely everywhere, and don’t get me started about tanning….), so there was never any chance of me getting a sunburn there.
No, I got all my sunburns in the mountains. And not even in the summer. We Italians celebrate several holidays in late April and early May, which gives us the perfect excuse to go camping, picnicking, or mountain hiking. Or all of these things. Fun times.
There’s a chain of mountains near Senigallia, my hometown, so me and my friends would often go there. It wasn’t the beach. It wasn’t summer. We were young and stupid. None of us ever thought of bringing sunscreen. We didn’t need it, right?
Wrong. By the time we were ready to go home, our foreheads, noses, and backs of neck and shoulders were badly sunburned. To add insult to injury, our moms would often tell us off (not that they would ever remind us to bring sunscreen in the first place – although they did mention something about wearing wide-brimmed hats… ahem).
Oh, in case you’re wondering, I’ve learned my lesson. I wear sunscreen every day now, no matter where I am, so no more sunburns in the mountains for this girl. Yay!
But, this whole thing got me thinking:
Where are you more likely to get a sunburn: beach or mountains?
Yes, it’s a tricky question. And to answer it, we need to figure out where UV rays are at their strongest. To do this, we need to consider two things: where UV rays are more intense and what environment better reflects them. That’s where science can give us a helping hand (thanks, science!).
1. Where are UV rays more intense?
Closer to the equator. The sun in Brazil is a lot more intense than un Norway. I know, I discovered hot water.
But, the sun’s rays are also more intense at high altitudes.
According to a 1999 study published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, direct UVB levels at 8,500 feet in Vail, Colorado, were approximately 60% higher than at sea level in NYC. There’s more. “The direct UV-B levels in Vail, “ the study found, “were the same as those in Orlando, a site nearly 775 miles closer to the equator.”
Ok, this is all very abstract. Let’s use a practical example. Basically, if you’re in Vali at noon and are not wearing sunscreen, you’ll get a sunburn within after only 6 minutes! If you’re in NYC at the same time (noon, I mean), you’ll get one in 25 minutes. And if you’re in Orlando, nearer the equator, at noon, you’ll get a sunburn in 14 minutes.
And, it gets worse as you go higher. UV exposure increases by 10% for every 3,280 feet in altitude. So, if you’re somewhere 7,000 feet over the level of the sea, you’re exposed to 25% more UV rays than if you had stayed at the beach.
But why? That’s because the higher up you go, the less of the earth’s atmosphere is there to block out UV rays.
2. Which environment better reflect UV rays?
I know what you’re thinking. There’s snow in the mountains, so even if you’re higher up, there’s no chance of getting a sunburn. You can’t get a sunburn if there’s snow around, right?
Dead wrong, my friend. Turns out, snow is one of the best reflectors of sunlight. So, if you’re skiing, building snowmen, or throwing snowballs at your friends, the snow will reflect 80 to 90% of UV rays back at you!
So, not only are UV rays more intense in the mountains, but it’s practically guaranteed they’ll get you, one way or another.
Still water is a good reflector of UV light too, by the way. Those crystal waters can reflect up to 100% of UV rays. Basically, you get twice as much sun exposure!
Sea foam? 25%. And dry beach sand only 15%.
You know what else sucks at reflecting UV rays instead? Grass. If you’re in a field somewhere, only 3% of sunlight will be reflected at you. Mind you, that doesn’t mean you can skip the sunscreen.
Yep, the mountains win this one. You’re more likely to get a sunburn hiking up Mount Blanc than lying on a beach in Ibiza. But, put on your sunscreen wherever you are.You're more likely to get a sunburn in the mountains than at beach. So, don't forget to pile on your sunscreen.Click To Tweet
So, How do I Prevent Sunburns?
No, you don’t need to stop going on holiday. But, as UV rays will get you wherever you are, you need to protect your skin both at the beach and mountain (and lake, and park, and city – everywhere basically). Here’s how:
- Wear SPF30 sunscreen or higher and reapply it every couple of hours.
- Cover up your body as much as possible (without suffocating in the heat) when you’re in direct sunlight.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat to protect your face and neck.
- Wear sunglasses, preferably with UV tinted lenses, to protect your eyes.
- Don’t forget the lips! Always use a lip balm with SPF.
- Avoid the sun as much as possible during peak hours (10am-4pm).
The Bottom Line
You’re more likely to develop a sunburn (and faster too) at the mountains than at the beach. But, honestly, you can get one anywhere if you don’t wear sunscreen. And if not sunburn, then wrinkles and sun spots. Don’t risk it. Pile on that sunscreen. Anytime (during the day). Anywhere.
Where did you get your worst sunburn? At the mountains or at the beach?