Mountaineering and ultraviolet light exposure: impact to your skin, eyes, and general health

by Gideon Lasco

This is an article belonging to the ‘climb health‘ category in PinoyMountaineer. Information provided in this article are based on research and are not meant as a substitute to actual medical advice and healthcare.

There is a prevalent misconception that UV protection (i.e. use of sunblock) is a matter of choice; use it if you’re sensitive about your skin and you don’t want to get dark. It may then be perceived as an act of true hardcore-ness to eschew these uncomfortable sun protection lotions. Often neglected, however, are the harmful effects of UV light that has bigger implicatons on health. Thus sun protection lotions are not accorded the importance that it ought to have in responsible, healthy mountaineering.

Moreover, an even more neglected thing is the impact of UV light not only to the skin but to the eyes. Awareness of the harmful effects of UV light on skin, eyes, and general health, as well as preventive measures to counteract them, then, is a vital knowledge for all mountaineers, and provides the rationale for this article.

Mountaineers get the most ultraviolet light
For those of us into mountain climbing in the Phiippines, our UV light exposure is increased for several reasons. First, the altitude: the higher you climb, the more UV light you get. Also, our latitude being close to the equator orients us towards the sun more and thus, more UV light. In fact, in the UV factor scale designed to quantify the amount of UV in a given place, the Philippines gets 10-11 out of a maximum of 11. The time of day is also a risk factor: if you climb between 10 AM to 2 PM you get the most UV light and in many cases, we mountaineers are exposed to the sun during these hours.

Misconcepcion: clouds block UV light. Indeed, being invisible radiation, ultraviolet light can penetrate clouds so even on cloudy or overcast days, you can get high doses of UV exposure.

Misconcepcion 2: If you don’t feel the hot rays of the sun you won’t get sunburnt. Sunburn is caused by UV radiation which cannot be felt. Most of the heating is caused by the sun’s visible and infrared radiation and not by UV radiation.

Excessive ultraviolet light is harmful to the skin
The harmful effects of UV light, both UVA and UVB, on skin is well established. Prolonged exposure to UV light causes sunburn and skin cancers, particularly basal cell carcinomas and squamous cell carcinomas.

Sunblocks and sunscreens protect the skin from UV light
Sunblocks or sunscreens are lotions that absorb UV light, preventing it from reaching the skin. The effectiveness of this “block” is measured as SPF (Sun Protection Factor) – something that is frequently encountered in the labels of sunblocks, whitening creams. An SPF of 30 or higher is more than enough. When using sunscreens make sure you reapply every 4 fours to ensure maximal protection because the lotions wears off especially with excessive sweating etc.

Appropriate gear adds protection
Wearing of hats, long-sleeved clothing is also recommended to protect from UV light especially between 10 AM to 2 PM and situations with intense sunlight exposure. Newly-developed fabrics are now being marketed as “UV resistant” – such as Columbia’s Titanium series.

Excessive ultraviolet light is harmful to the eyes
Extended exposure to the sun’s UV rays has been linked to eye damage, including cataracts, macular degeneration, pingueculae and pterygia and photokeratitis that can cause temporary vision loss. The Wikipedia article warns that “If too much UV light is absorbed, eye structures such as the cornea, the lens and the retina can be damaged.”

Sunglasses can protect your eyes
There is, then, more to sun glasses than aesthetics and more comfortable vision and glare reduction. They are also protective eyewear that are recommended especially for frequent climbers. The question is, which kinds of glasses offer protection? Although even the cheapest plastic lenses can block off UV rays, you can derive the best protection from new technologies such as polarized lenses (Ray-ban, Oakley, Optic Nerve) which almost completely blocks off UV light.

Conclusion: be UV-protected whenever you climb
The issue of sun protection, then, is a health issue; mountain sun exposure is a health risk and certain precautions must be done to protect yourself from this risk. UV protection is an essential part of healthy mountaineering and we recommend that whenever you climb, use sunblock, protective clothing and when climbing in long, open trails always wear sunglasses.

REFERENCES
World Health Organization, “Global Solar UV Index”; Fact Sheet 271 August 2002
World Health Organization, “Health Effects of UV Radiation”

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4 Comments on "Mountaineering and ultraviolet light exposure: impact to your skin, eyes, and general health"


Guest
5 years 2 months ago

We need to be very concern about our health and we should take necessary steps to stay healthy. UV Light is a great product to purify water, air etc. Ultra violet light, such as that found in a UV light air purifier, can kill toxic substances in your home, greatly reducing allergens, killing germs and enhancing your family’s health. Visit to know more Air Care UV.

Guest
8 years 9 months ago

please do more research on sunlight especially UVB. there is an alternative body of thought that sunlight is actually good for you. it is the only excellent and natural source of vitamin d. please check if there is a prevalence of skin cancers in indigenous mountain communities. among these people, longevity and strength are commonplace. i have climbed many places without sunblock for a few years and my skin is just fine.

Guest
9 years 13 days ago

Not only does UV affect your body, it also hastens your equipment's deterioration (e.g. waterproofing of tent fly). End-user manufacturers are now selling UV-protection treatments for tents and other prone equipment.

Thanks for this Sir Gid. I'll be using more sunblock in our next trips.

Guest
Aggie Pinzon
9 years 13 days ago

Hello Gideon! Thanks for this useful post. I've taken to putting sunscreen on every time I climb but admittedly for vanity reasons (I get dark and my skin breaks out). I wasn't really that aware of the more serious health risks too much sun exposure can do.

Please do a write up too on exposure to other elements – rain and cold – and how we can avoid getting sick on the trail and what to do if we do catch a cold or something.

For Gid's readers, our doctor mountaineer here packs a mean first aid kit. Maybe you can also share a check list on really important meds to bring during a climb Gid. Thanks!

/Aggie