Why Higher Altitudes are So Hard on Your Skin

In the Mile High City, we’re already at a higher altitude, but a short drive away puts you in the heart of the Rocky Mountains and elevations between 12,000-14,000+ feet. Along with world-class skiing, climbing, hiking, rafting, and other alpine recreation, higher mountain altitudes can wreak havoc on the skin. The good news is that with a little knowledge and a few precautionary measures, you should be able to protect and help your skin recover from the harsh conditions of our dry, mountainous climate.

Why It’s So Easy to Get Sunburned in the Mountains

It is easier to get sunburned at higher elevations, but it’s NOT because you’re closer to the sun—at least not in terms of distance. The Rocky Mountains do experience more direct sunlight in the summer, but this is no different than it is for lower elevations along the same latitude. So, what’s the deal? Why is it easier to get a sunburn in the mountains? The answer is that the sun’s rays have less atmosphere to travel through. Research indicates that for every 1,000 feet of elevation gain, the sun’s UV rays intensify by 8-10 percent because of the thinning atmosphere. That means at the highest elevations of the Colorado Rockies, UV radiation can be more than twice as intense as it would be at sea level.

More than geology and physics, the things we love to do in the mountains also play a role. Climbers, for example, tend to be at the highest elevations to begin with, but that’s not the only sunburn risk. By climbing on highly-reflective ice and rock surfaces and by putting their bodies at odd angles, climbers may get sunburned in the folds of their ears, on the inside of their mouths, in their nostrils, and other places that are unaccustomed to sun exposure.

Should you end up getting sunburned so bad that you can't wait for an appointment, visit one of our walk-in clinics. Rocky Mountain Urgent Care and Family Medicine in Aurora is open until 9pm every day of the week.

Dry Skin: Xerosis and Ichthyosis

Most people know about the dangers of getting sunburned. Fewer people know just how badly your skin can react to the dry, mountain air. Severely dry skin also has a medical name, xerosis, also known as xeroderma. It’s not just dry, flaky, slightly itchy skin you have to worry about. Cracked skin and chapped lips are also common. Huge areas of skin may slough off. Itching can be severe. You may stain bedsheets. You may look prematurely old. You can learn more about xerosis from the American Academy of Dermatology.

Some of these skin problems are especially common with people who just moved to Colorado and who are unaccustomed to the dry, mountainous climate. There is almost always a transition period in which daily application of skin moisturizers can be crucial to avoiding or managing an adverse skin reaction. At the same time, ichthyosis and other pre-existing skin conditions can be that much harder to manage in this climate.

Risk of Skin Infections

There are few studies—and none particularly compelling—about whether the risk of serious infections is increased in higher elevations. While there is some disruption to certain types of immunological cells, your active immunity stays intact despite the elevation. However, there is one type of infection that is definitively increased, and that’s skin infections. Generally speaking, dry skin will have a slightly harder time healing from a wound. At very high altitudes of 14,000+ feet, extra stress hormone and reduced ability to deliver oxygen to skin tissue makes it even harder for the skin to heal. And this increased healing time inevitably leads to a higher risk of skin infections. Dry, cracked skin is also susceptible to opportunistic infections. Similarly, lungs and sinuses may be prone to secondary infections resulting from continuously breathing in dry, mountain air.

Stay Hydrated—Inside and Out

Along with using sunscreen, the best thing you can do is to keep your skin—and yourself—hydrated. Drink plenty of water. If you have trouble remembering to drink water, start a new habit of keeping a water bottle at your side at all times. The importance of convenience shouldn’t be underestimated. Use a daily moisturizer, and experiment with what your skin—and wallet—prefers for skin products. Finally, avoid taking frequent and/or hot showers which can dry your skin out even more.

Looking for a more scientific treatment of serious, altitude-related skin problems? We can check out this online resource. Otherwise, just know that by taking these few precautionary steps, most people won’t experience anything like these more serious dermatological conditions.

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