Dermatologists weigh in on whether or not sitting in the window seat can hurt your skin (and what you can do about it).
It’s a question many skin-conscious flyers have no doubt pondered pre-flight: Should I pack sunblock in my carry-on?
The short answer: Yes. It’s possible to get sunburned on a plane, says Marc Glashofer, M.D., a dermatologist in New Jersey-based The Derm Group and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
But you should be worried about more than a bad burn. Why? Well, there are two types of harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays: UVB rays, which cause sunburn, and their longer, scarier cousin UVA rays, which hit your skin at a deeper level, potentially causing skin cancer. For the most part, plane windows block UVB rays, Glashofer says. But unfortunately for anyone sitting in the window seat, UVA rays can penetrate glass.
Pilots are in a particular predicament: A recent study in JAMA Dermatology found just one hour at 30,000 feet could expose pilots to the same amount of UV radiation as a 20-minute tanning bed session would. But as a passenger, you’re up against a smaller window and far less cumulative exposure. Still, over time, hours in the sun (yes, even by a window) add up, increasing your risk of skin cancer, says Glashofer.
So what can you do to protect yourself? “I pull down the shades in the airplane when it's sunny,” says Joel Cohen, M.D., director of Colorado-based AboutSkin Dermatology, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Dermatology. It’s important to-do regardless of weather: Cloud cover and snow can reflect UV rays, which can potentially further skin damage.
You can also fight back with a broad-spectrum 30-SPF lotion, which will protect against UVA and UVB rays. Re-apply a marble-sized amount to your face every two hours, says Cohen. Don’t forget often overlooked areas like the back of your hands, forearms, and ears, says Glashofer. You might not realize it, but those areas are exposed, too.
When buying sunscreen, look for ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—they tend to be less irritating than other chemicals. Glashofer likes CeraVe Sunscreen Face Lotion SPF 30. “It goes on easily and has no odor.” EltaMD also has a slew of blocks dermatologists love. Do your own trial and error, though. As Glashofer puts it: “The best sunscreen is the one you’re going to use.”