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Why is it so easy to get sunburned out in Colorado?

Posted at 9:30 AM, May 17, 2019
and last updated 2019-05-17 11:30:49-04

Have you ever been skiing or on a hike, even for a short while, and when you get home you notice your face and arms have a cherry red look to them? Turns out there’s a reason for that, and it’s all about Colorado’s elevation!

What does elevation have to do with getting a sunburn?

Colorado sunburn
It’s easy to get sunburned in southern Colorado due to our high elevation

It’s all about the air and how it changes as you go up or down in elevation. As you climb elevation, the air becomes less dense and thinner. This is why it’s harder to breathe in high elevation areas when you’re hiking or climbing, your lungs aren’t taking in as much oxygen with each breath.

The thinner the atmosphere, the more sunshine, or UV rays, are allowed to pass through. UV exposure increases about 4% for every 1000 feet of elevation gain. That means if you’re standing on Monument Hill on a sunny day, you’re seeing around 25% more UV rays than if you were on a beach in Orlando.

Anyone who has ever been skiing or snowboarding in March or April might be able to relate to this better. The sun angle in March and April becomes stronger and more direct across Colorado, leading to longer days and more concentrated UV rays hitting the ground. On top of that, fresh snowfall has a high albedo factor, meaning it can reflect 80 to 90 percent of the suns UV rays back at you! Skiiers who do not use sunscreen can come away with a sunburn around their goggles after just 20 to 30 minutes on a sunny day.

Is there anything we can do to protect ourselves?

There are lots of things you can do to protect yourself from getting sunburned. The biggest thing you can do is to put sunscreen on any unprotected area of skin, especially your face and neck. SPF 30 or higher is the recommended level for the best UV protection. Wear hats and or long pants and sleeves if you’re especially prone to sunburns, and try to take breaks under the shade during your hikes.

Remember, even on very cloudy days up to 80% of the suns UV rays can pass through overcast skies. This is why so many people end up with sunburns at the pool on cloudy days. If you’re going to be outside in the sun or under the clouds for more than an hour, especially in the summer, it’s always a good idea to put on sunscreen.