Windburn, Sunburn – what’s the difference?
- Sunburn is caused by prolonged exposure to ultraviolet light (UV) from the sun
- Windburn is caused by prolonged exposure to cold, dry air
Cold, dry air increases the rate of moisture loss from your skin through a process called Trans-epidermal water loss (TEWL). TEWL is the natural process of moisture evaporation from your skin that occurs constantly.
TEWL is accelerated when your skin is exposed to cold, dry air. Your body responds to these conditions by dilating blood vessels near the surface of the skin to increase blood flow to restore your skin’s normal moisture and temperature.
Over a short period of time and in moderate conditions this process will maintain skin temperature and moisture levels. Over prolonged periods of time and in harsher conditions, your body cannot maintain normal skin temperature and moisture levels. The result is windburn.
In the short term, wind burn causes red, dry skin which may become chapped or crack. In the long term this damage to your skin can cause permanent damage and pre-mature aging of your skin.
Windburn is a bit of a misnomer since it can happen even with still air. Your body’s reaction is triggered by the cold and dry air. Wind accelerates the process by drawing more heat and moisture from your skin than still air would.
Sunburn is caused by exposure to the sun’s Ultra-Violet (UV) rays. Similar to windburn, UV rays also cause your skin to dry out from accelerated TEWL. UV rays also damage the DNA in your skin cells which accelerates the aging process and can also lead to cancer.
It’s not uncommon to simultaneously suffer sunburn and windburn. It’s not uncommon to experience dry, cold and sunny conditions at once.
Five Ways to Prevent Windburn
The best way to treat wind burn is to prevent it. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Over time the damage from windburn accumulates and cannot be reversed.
Just like sunburn, there are many products to treat and prevent windburn.
For most athletes, over exposure to the elements is common. We cannot control the environment and sometimes we are unprepared to deal with harsh conditions.
Even under “normal” conditions our exposed skin is suffering from UV exposure and the accelerated effects of TEWL.
Clear or overcast skies allow the sun’s UV rays to damage our skin. Add cold, dry and windy conditions and our skin can really suffer.
Here are Five Ways to Prevent Windburn
1.) Use a skin cream that locks in moisture. Products that contain petroleum jelly, cocoa butter, jojoba oil, shea butter, lanolin or beeswax are good to use.
These ingredients are known as “Occlusives.” Occlusives form a thin non-permeable film on your skin which locks in your skin’s natural moisture and helps prevent TEWL. Check out “The Naked Chemist” or this article from “Skin Therapy Newsletter” for more information on occlusives.
Occlusives stay on the surface of your skin and are not absorbed into your skin. This is how they form a protective layer to lock in moisture. Since occlusives cannot be absorbed, they can clog pores and cause acne.
A product containing occlusives will need to be washed off with soap and water.
Some dermatologists recommend using sun screen every day. When you know you will be exposed for long periods you should use a sunscreen containing an occlusive. The most common occlusive found in sun screen is zinc oxide.
When looking for skin products containing occlusives this article from Botaneri.com explains the different occlusive materials you should look for.
This is the easiest tip to implement. Keep a tube of quality sun screen in your bag and in your car. Keep sunscreen out of the heat and check for experimentation dates.
2.) Don’t forget your lips. Our lips are exposed to sun every day and the bitter cold of winter does not help. Some chap stick and lip balm is made with bee’s wax and have a decent SPF. Beeswax is a natural occlusive that most people are not allergic to.
I often use chap stick when running. My lips always seem to dry out and it can drive me crazy. I don’t always use a product with an occlusive but I always look for the SPF on the package. Always read the label.
3.) Avoid exposure to extreme temperatures for prolonged periods of time. In the summer time you want to avoid outside activities when the UV Index is highest. In cold temperatures you want to avoid being outside for long periods of time in harsh conditions.
You may have to run at different times of the day or drive the kids to school. When the days are short and the nights are frigid, a treadmill may be your best friend.
If you do have to run in harsh conditions, cover as much skin as possible. Use a lotion with an occlusive on your nose and exposed portions of your face. When it’s below freezing I try to wear lotion even in the dark.
Kids should wear gloves and knit caps for the bus stop or walk home. A baseball hat doesn’t protect ears from frostbite or windburn and has virtually no insulation for your kid’s head.
4.) Break up your exposure time. Your body responds to the conditions and can protect you over the short run. But it needs time to recover from exposure. See the chart below for frost bite. Cut those times in half for windburn and plan accordingly.
Your body will heat up from running but exposed skin is still vulnerable to wind burn. Try breaking a long run into shorter runs and give your skin time to recover in sheltered warmth. Re-apply your skin cream.
You can also break up your outside chores by taking a break from snow shoveling to re-hydrate and help your skin recover.
Breaking up activities is probably the most difficult thing to do. It’s hard enough to get outside when it’s cold. Taking a break could cause you to not go back out.
If the conditions are really bad you may have to use the treadmill or risk cutting your run short. Sometimes a little in-doors cross training is the best bet!
5.) Check the weather forecast; know the wind chill. Quite often forecasts will include the wind chill factor. Knowing the conditions is key to protecting your skin.
Use this chart to estimate the wind chill in your area. Click on the chart to get a National Weather Service pdf download.
It’s important to keep in mind that conditions constantly change. If the air temperature is 20° and you get into a 30mph wind, you have a 1°F wind chill.
Due to the variability of conditions it is best to be a little cautious. Wearing a quality sun screen all the time is a good idea. If conditions are marginal, you should be prepared to seek shelter and change your plans if conditions worsen.
How to treat Windburn
Windburned skin is damaged, sensitive skin. Moisturizing lotion and avoiding further exposure will help your skin recover. Avoid lotions with fragrances or harsh ingredients and look for lotions for “sensitive” skin.
Aloe Vera is a good choice, but consult with your physician or pharmacist for advice on the best treatment for you.
While a hot shower may feel great after coming in from the cold, hot water is not good for wind burn or sunburned skin. If you want a hot shower try to keep the hot water off of your damaged skin.
Hot water and soap break up and wash away the lipids on the surface of your skin. Lipids are the natural oils in your skin that hold in moisture and help keep your skin soft.Try to wash your damaged skin with warm water and then apply lotion.
Run well my friends,