You may be hiking in the mountains this summer while spending time visiting friends in Denver. You may be in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah, Wyoming or any of mountain states of the West. These high altitude areas are delightful during the summers as they are cool and dry. But don’t be deceived into thinking you are less likely to get sunburned because you are cooler.
According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “UV intensity increases with altitude because there is less atmosphere to absorb the damaging rays. As a result, your chance of damaging your eyes and skin increases at higher altitude.”
At high altitudes the ultraviolet rays from the sun are more intense and therefore more damaging. Cautionary notes from those who live in high altitude areas include the observation that “sunburns at high altitude may also have a longer delay factor – they may not show up until you are more seriously burned than you would be at lower altitude. In other words, by the time you notice that you are turning pink, you may be actually in the process of developing a second degree burn that will blister. Fair skin can begin to burn within half an hour, and two hours can burn you badly enough to give you trouble sleeping that night.”
This increase in the risk for sun damage does not happen just because at high altitudes you are closer to the sun. It also relates to air density. Think of a wool blanket- the thicker the blanket, the more warmth it keeps in. The atmosphere acts as a blanket holding in heat (generated by earth and sunlight striking the earth). At higher levels, the blanket is thinner, therefore it is cooler. However, the thicker the blanket the more direct rays of the sun are filtered, so as it becomes thinner, fewer rays are filtered and the risk for sun damage becomes greater. According to statistics from the Denver Visitors Bureau, at 6,280 ft or approximate one mile above sea level, there is 25% less protection from UVR.
It’s cool in the mountains, its beautiful and its sunny. Go out an enjoy the view. Sun protective clothing, including a hat with a three-inch brim, will protect you at all times of the day. Use ample sunscreen on those parts of your skin that will be exposed – face, neck, top of ears, hands – and wear sunglasses to protect your eyes. (remember, if your skin burns more easily at high altitudes, your eyes will too).
Visiting areas at high altitudes is a rare treat for many of us. Enjoy it.
Be Safe. Be SunAWARE.