Whether you love hiking in the mountains or even rock climbing or you just live at a higher elevation, you might be surprised to learn that being at a higher altitude affects your skin. And not in a positive way.
Your skin is the only thing that stands between your inner workings and the environment. With around 140 million people all over the world living at permanent high altitudes of over 2,500 meters plus about 40 million others that go to high altitude zones for sports, recreation, or even their jobs, if you’re among them, it’s important to know what risks your skin incurs from being way up there.
Known as high altitude (HA) dermatoses, it can affect you whether you live way up high in Denver, or you make trips to go climbing every month.
And speaking of the ‘Mile High City,’ if you only drive a short distance away, you’re then in the Rocky Mountains where the elevations range between 12,000 to beyond 14,000 feet. Those higher altitudes can do your skin in, but only if you’re not aware.
And now that you are, you can take a few precautions to protect yourself while enjoying the beauty of the mountains. We’ll tell you exactly how to do just that, whether you’ve just made your move to a mountain town or your vacation to HA places to get your thrills on the mountaintops. Keep reading!
Does High Altitude Cause Dry Skin?
The skin can feel drier at high altitudes due to lower humidity levels and increased UV exposure. However, skin damage caused by climate can be prevented with sunscreen and moisturizing lotions.
At low altitudes, the atmospheric pressure is higher, which means that there are more air molecules surrounding your body.
This higher number of ‘encircling’ particles ensures that humidified oxygen reaches all parts of your body by dissolving in the oils of your skin and hair.
However, as a person begins to ascend into higher altitudes, there are significantly less air molecules surrounding their body.
The result is that dry air cannot dissolve as much water from your sebaceous glands and from the atmosphere. This causes the relative humidity of the air you breath to drop rapidly as you gain elevation.
In addition, at higher altitudes, the sun’s radiation is more direct and intense. This exposure can damage skin cells at a high rate, causing them to die sooner than they would at lower altitudes.
The body responds by sending out more oil (sebum) in order to protect itself from this environment. Because of higher UV exposure and lower humidity levels, dryness is a side effect for those who live in higher altitudes.
Hence, Yes. High altitude does cause dry skin. However, there are many other factors that also contribute to the condition.
The reasons why high altitude affects your skin
Perhaps the first thing you noticed when you moved to a higher altitude was that you have to adjust your baking. Well, you also have to adjust your skincare for this same reason. Here’s why these high altitudes affect your skin.
High altitude has thinner air
When you’re at a higher altitude, whether you’re there permanently or you’re just visiting, the impact of the thinner air is problematic. It has a lower oxygen content and lower humidity. Low humidity might sound like a dream come true if you’ve finally gone to the mountains after living in Miami where your hair frizzes up no matter how you style it, but the problems abound for your skin here from the atmosphere.
In total, the atmosphere is around 430 miles in thickness. The lowest layer, the troposphere, is only 7 miles thick in the point above North America. That’s pretty thin for the layer that should be protecting you from the sun’s radiation! And speaking of that…
The amount of UV rays coming from the sun is very high
You might think the higher elevation puts you closer to the sun and that’s why you got a sunburn on the mountain, but that’s not exactly the truth. While you ARE indeed closer to the sun than you would be on lower ground, the sun’s rays have less atmosphere to go through to get to you, according to a recent study. In the case of the Rockies, you get more direct summer sunlight, but that’s the same at a lower elevation on that same latitude.
Basically, for every 1,000 feet of elevation, the UV rays intensify somewhere between 8% and 10% thanks to that thinning atmosphere. So you’re getting more UV exposure at the top of the Rockies than you are at sea level.
Let’s put this another way. In NYC, you could sit out in Central Park for about 25 minutes before you burn. At 10,000 feet up on the mountains, you could burn in just 6 minutes, even if there is a thick cloud cover!
The majority of wrinkles (90% to be exact) are caused by exposure to the sun. A good way to stay protected is to check the UV Index Report in your area on days you plan to be outside, whether you’re at a high elevation or not.
The reflection of UV lights on the ice during the winter
Ah, winter! Snow! Finally a break from that summer sun, right? Not so fast!
As shown by research, the UV rays reflect off the snow and ice in winter, so, any skin you have exposed is vulnerable. Usually, that leaves your ears, face, neck, and hands since you’re hopefully covered with proper coats. But if you like to climb, you’ll be putting yourself at extreme risk. No one is rock climbing in a parka, after all. You’ll need to protect parts of you that you wouldn’t normally think of, like the folds of your ears, in your nostrils, even inside your mouth!
Don’t think for a second that you’re safer from UV rays in the winter because it’s cold out. It has nothing to do with air temperature and everything to do with elevation and the atmosphere!
How bad high altitude can damage my skin
So, now that you know a bit of science about high altitude, here’s why you need to pay extra attention to your skin!
High altitude can cause severe dry skin
You might religiously apply sunscreen whenever you go outside, wherever you are. That’s a good habit to have. And if not, start doing it now!
But the dangers of getting sunburned aren’t the only problem you’ll face. That dry mountain air can make your skin extra dry. In fact, they call it ‘xerosis’ or ‘xeroderma.’ It goes beyond dry, flaky, itchy skin. It gets chapped and cracked and boy does it hurt! You may experience large areas of skin sloughing off and that itchiness is no joke. It can leave you looking years older than you actually are. Say goodbye to being carded at the liquor store!
Many times, these problems affect those who lived at lower altitudes or sea level their whole lives only to up and move to the gorgeous mountain ranges. If you’re from Florida for example and never lived elsewhere, you won’t be used to the dry climate of the mountains. It’s advised that you apply a moisturizer several times a day to manage this. If you have any pre-existing skin conditions though, you should find a good dermatologist in your new mountain territory because it might be even more challenging to manage the higher up you are.
High altitude can even cause skin infection
When you have dry skin, it has a harder time recovering from a wound. When you’re at high altitudes, extra stress hormones and less oxygen circulation make that even more difficult for your skin to heal itself.
The longer your skin takes to heal, the more vulnerable you are to developing an infection,which is why dermatologist suggest using antiseptic cream on freshly revealed skin to help with the healing process and decrease the risk of infection.
You may also find the tissues inside your lungs and sinuses have a harder time acclimating to the dry air up in the mountains and wind up with more infections than you had in your old location.
If this all sounds a bit alarming, try not to worry. The mountains are a beautiful place, but knowing how to protect your skin and your health will serve you well whether you’re settling in for good or simply trying to enjoy an epic ski vacation. Read on to find out how!
How to cope with high altitude and protect your skin
Let’s take action against the ravages of the high altitude on your skin. This is how to stay protected and keep your skin (and the rest of you!) in healthy condition!
Apply sunscreen every 2 hours
In the winter, you won’t need to cover your entire body with sunscreen, but you will need to do so for the parts of you that are exposed. Set alerts on your phone if you must, but don’t forget to reapply that sunscreen every hour or two maximum to stay protected.
You should make a point of applying that sunscreen at least 20 minutes before you step outside too. This allows the active ingredients to bind to your skin.
Which sunscreen should you choose? Dermatologists recommend SPF 30. An SPF of 50 doesn’t increase UV protection. It simply means you don’t have to apply it as often, but for your safety, applying sunscreen at regular intervals throughout the day is always the best option.
You should also look for formulations that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Some may even feature both. These are minerals that help create a barrier on your skin to reflect the UV rays away rather than absorbing them. You’ll get protection from both UVA and UVB rays which is very important, plus these ingredients are far less irritating than their chemical competitors.
Stash travel size or samples of sunscreens in your jacket pockets when you go skiing so you always have them handy on the slopes. Ideally, choosing a formula like EltaMD’s facial sunscreen with SPF 41 (Amazon link) that is highly moisturizing and water-resistant will help keep skin from feeling parched in the wind, it’s also free from fragrance, paraben, and oils.
Even with sunscreen, a hat and sunglasses are essential in high altitudes. This protects your eyes and the tender skin of your scalp too. Don’t forget that all that fresh mountain air that inspires you to get outdoors and bike, hike, climb, sled, ski, and everything else makes you more prone to skin damage, especially in oddball places. You may have covered your nose adequately with sunscreen and reapplied it over and over all day. But if you skipped the area behind your ears, just under your nose or didn’t think about your lips, you may be looking at some serious sunburn damage when you get home.
Pro tip: while water-resistant formulas are great for sweating and sports, it’s not the same as waterproof. It will wear off so be sure to be vigilant about reapplying it.
In addition to keeping up with your sunscreen, you have to stay hydrated. Drink lots and lots of water, even in the winter. If you can’t remember to do so, build up a habit of taking water with you everywhere you go. And if water seems boring to you, use a bottle that allows you to infuse fresh fruit in there so you’ll have a tastier beverage that’s still all-natural and hydrating, plus gives you more healthy vitamins.
A good rule of thumb is to drink a half-ounce of water per pound of your body weight. So, if you weigh 120 pounds, you should be drinking at least 60 ounces of water every day. But in higher altitudes, you may need double that to be completely hydrated.
Cutting back on alcohol can help here too. Alcohol has a stronger effect the higher up you are. You don’t have to bid your weekly wine nights adieu but when you first get to the mountains, you should consume very little of it or abstain until you get more acclimated. If you simply don’t want to miss the party, make sure you drink it slowly so you can better gauge the effects and alternate between alcohol and water throughout the evening.
Maintain a healthy diet
We’ve said it so many times, but like having plenty of water for healthy, hydrated skin, what you eat matters too. Eat more foods that are rich in omega-3 fatty acids like salmon and mackerel, though if you don’t want fish, you can get them through chia seeds, flaxseeds, and walnuts too. These are so healthy for you and will help your skin look amazing!
Optimize your skin care routine
Another forgotten area? The lips! They don’t make their own moisture so use protective balms and oils that hydrate to keep them from getting dry and cracked. Aloe vera, shea butter, calendula oil, and vitamins A, C, and E that are rich in antioxidants are ideal for helping your skin. The same goes for hyaluronic acid and oat beta-glucan. JACK BLACK’s Lip Balm with SPF 25 (Amazon link) is an ideal choice.
Speaking of amazing skin, in addition to protecting it with sunscreen, you should use skincare products that help it thrive in higher altitudes. Don’t use anything that strips your skin of its natural oils. Try adding a serum, preferably something with hyaluronic acid. This crucial ingredient can hold up to 1,000 times its weight in water, binding moisture from the atmosphere into your skin. Follow that with a good moisturizer to seal it all in and you’ll have skin that stays moisturized and healthy.
Moisturizers that work in more humid climates won’t help you here. You need to layer everything and use things that hydrate every part of your skin. With so little humidity in the mountains, fine lines may be more noticeable even just a day or two after getting into higher altitudes. Offset that by hydrating everything you can. Don’t forget your eyes either. That area is already delicate enough and in the drier, thinner air, you’ll be more likely to get permanent lines if you don’t protect yourself.
You may even find that the products that are recommended by dermatologists for handling eczema are best for you. Oil cleansing is a great way to go, followed by a thick moisturizer to really quench skin deep down. Micellar water is also good for cleansing, especially in the morning because it doesn’t strip skin. Just follow it promptly with a serum that really hydrates and moisturizer, followed by an SPF protector.
In every climate, exfoliation needs to be a part of your skincare routine, but in a high altitude, it’s urgent! Exfoliation helps get those dead skin cells out of there. Fruit peels are effective for gentle exfoliation as they dissolve away the dead skin cells rather than rubbing your skin raw. Though if you do prefer the polishing type, you should use something that is gentle to refresh your skin without tearing at it.
Once a week is all it takes though again, stay away from anything harsh. For very sensitive skin, using a non-drying cleanser and a good washcloth can really help. The idea is to not feel like your skin is tight and dry.
Avoid staying in the shower for too long
We love a good long shower or bath like nothing else, but at higher altitudes, it can take a toll on your skin and how hydrated it is. The water should NEVER be hot but rather, lukewarm. Use the same rule for washing your face too.
With hair, you should try not to wash it as frequently and focus on gentle shampoos. Take the time to massage conditioner into your scalp too so that it nourishes the scalp and keeps it from drying out. You want snowflakes coming from the sky, not from your hair!
And whatever you do, cut down the time you spend in the shower or tub. No more than 15 minutes should be spent bathing. You can take more frequent showers, but not longer showers. As soon as you get out, blot your skin with a towel and immediately slather on your moisturizer!
Invest in a home humidifier
With all that dry air, a humidifier is one of the best things to buy for your home. It is scientifically proven that low humidity, coupled with low temperature causes skin dehydration. It can relieve itchy eyes, dry skin, and even cracked lips. One that can be used with essential oils will have your home smelling just like a spa!
Last and not least be patient
It takes time to adjust to a new place, especially one that is at a higher elevation. Practice these beauty tips to help maximize your routine and avoid skin problems. As you do though, remember to be patient. It will get better!
Visit your dermatologist if needed
A good dermatologist can really help you if you’re still having skin troubles when you move to the mountains. If you’ve tried everything and still find you can’t quench your skin or scalp, find a dermatologist near you to help you get your skin problems under control.
You get a tradeoff when you move to the mountains. You get beautiful sunny days and stunning scenery, however, you have to be more cautious with your skincare. By following these tips and protecting your skin, you’ll be able to keep your skin healthy and beautiful no matter how long you stay up there!