Sun Care at 30,000 Feet: Are You Protected from UV Light During Air Travel?

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You’re absolutely ready for this trip. You’ve got your neck pillow, a few podcasts downloaded, and only the mini-est of toiletries packed in your one carryon. Once you’re boarded, all you need to do is sit back in your window seat, relax, and…apply sunscreen?

You may not know it, but air travel exposes our skin to more intense and dangerous UV light the higher it climbs into the lowest layer of our atmosphere. Studies have noted that pilots and cabin crew have nearly double the rate of melanoma than the average population.

Montclair, NJ dermatologist Jeanine Downie, MD explains that even though we may not be exposed to consistently high UV radiation that a pilot is, we still should exercise caution when travelling by air. “What I recommend for myself and my patients that travel is to be aware that they need to protect their skin from UVA, UVB, infrared, and HEV light consistently,” Dr. Downie says. “That means sunscreen with an SPF of 30 or greater reapplied every two hours.”

While passenger windows are comprised of three layers of plastic that do block a significant amount of the UVB radiation (the kind that causes sunburn), the sun’s rays become 6-10% more powerful every 1000 meters. That means at flying altitude, (which is about 30,000 feet or 10,000 meters) the UV radiation is double what it is on the ground.

“Studies from the Skin Cancer Foundation have shown that as you ascend upwards into the air on a plane you are actually getting exposed to more light and a more intense amount of sunlight,” Dr. Downie explains. “Which is why pilots and flight attendants comparatively have higher skin cancer numbers than the general population.”

In those flight crew that developed melanoma, they were 42% more likely to die from the cancer than the general population.

For pilots in particular, UV exposure is a concern. After finding higher rates of melanoma in flight crew, researchers found that the windshield of the plane blocked UVB radiation but let in UVA. When they compared the exposure of UVA radiation to a tanning bed, they found that a 60-minute flight exposed pilots to as much radiation as a 20-minute tanning session.

As a passenger, you are definitely more protected from that UV radiation than the pilot or flight crew, but UVA radiation can still enter through those multi-layered windows. And on cloudy days, UVA light is reflected off those beautiful white clouds, making the radiation even more intense.

Though you probably won’t get a sunburn if you keep your window open on a flight, dermatologists still recommend wearing basic sun protection of SPF 30 or greater when you’re traveling. Better still, consider just keeping the window shut.

It’s easier to nap that way, anyway.

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