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How To Protect Yourself From Sunburn at High Altitudes?


I observed something peculiar with my skin when I returned from my first Himalayan trek. It was the feeling of discomfort while wiping off my wet face. The skin was coming out, there was redness, and it gave me a burning sensation. Later I found I was the special culprit of the sun. Or call it sunburn. While I was aware of the suntan, this term rang an alarm bell in my head. How is it different from suntan? Is it severe?

It looked harmless. Moreover, it felt like my skin would return to normal after some days of discomfort. Well, in reality, something deteriorated.

You will agree with me in a short while. Go on!

Sun can cause considerable damage to your skin, eyes and body. If the exposure is unbearable for the body, diseases like skin cancer can also result. Pronounce this as a warning if you are a frequent trekker.

Not scaring you, but the reality hit me hard in the face. Exposure to the sun is similar for everyone, but its absorption varies from person to person based on age, hormonal changes etc. Hence, it is necessary to cover your body up before heading out. This article pushes light on the most avoided topic: how to protect oneself from sunburn at high altitudes?

Different Types of Sun Rays

Are sun rays different at different altitudes? 

sunburn at high altitude
Source: Wikimedia Commons

Yes, they are. UV exposure increases by 4% with every 1000 ft gain. 

Sunlight contains UV radiation. There are three types of UV radiation:

UVA – This is of longest wavelength, has the least energy and is found at sea level. Direct exposure to UVA radiation causes premature ageing and some cancers. These rays can penetrate easily and cause damage to the skin’s inner layers.

UVB – This is of medium wavelength, has the potential of causing sunburn, premature ageing and skin cancer, and is found mainly at high altitudes. 

UVC – This is of the shortest wavelength and is the most severe of the three. It causes redness, ulcers and severe burns. These rays are entirely filtered out by the atmosphere. 

Sunburn vs Suntan

Suntan and Sunburn sound similar, but they have a thin-line difference. 

You must have observed people from places near the equator and people who stay outdoors have a dark skin colour. It is because of Melanin. Melanin is a pigment that gives colour to hair, skin and eyes, and protects us from UV rays.

Let’s talk about science: Talking about it clinically, the skin that we see and touch is dead skin. Beneath this is the outer layer. It’s called the epidermis. 

Melanin helps protect the epidermis cells, or the outer layer of the skin, from UV light (UVA, UVB, UVC) and blue light. It does this by absorbing the UV light before it can damage the sensitive DNA of the skin cells. The collected melanin reflects the darkening of the skin, and we see suntan. 

When the skin is heavily exposed to the sun, it damages skin cells. When this happens, our blood vessels dilate, bringing more immune cells to the spot and the healing process starts. Hence, the redness and inflammation.

But in some worst scenarios, some living cells escape this correction and mutate to become cancerous.

This sounds horrific! Never in our wildest thoughts can we imagine that such a fitting sport, like trekking, can deteriorate our health. But now that we are informed, let us know how to protect our bodies from sun damage. 

Be aware; sun exposure is almost similar in winter and summer. Coming back to that later!

Protection Against Sun Rays

Clothes: Wear full-length clothes while trekking to save yourself from the sun. Care to buy synthetic clothes like Nylon and polyester, where water can dry off quickly. Target to protect all exposed parts of your body. Full pants and full sleeve clothes, along with a cap/balaclava, covers most of your body except your eyes and face.

Sunglasses: Prefer sunglasses that shield your eyes from UV rays and protect them from the side.

Read this article: How to Choose High Altitude UV Protected Sunglasses?

Sun skin cream: Choose sun skin cream with an SPF of more than 30. 

Word of caution for those who apply the cream just once and go out exposed in the sun for hours and hours. You are doing more damage than good. Reapply the sun skin cream after every two hours or so!

Staying away from water, sand, snow: Sand and snow reflect sunlight. Be more alert while trekking in different conditions. From 10:00 am to 3:00 pm, the sun rays are intense. Therefore, planning the trek mainly with the start of dawn is considered wiser. 

If you are a frequent trekker, let the melanin build over time. 

Also, water reflects sunlight. If you are out in the open, in water, apply waterproof sun skin cream and enjoy all that is in the world. 


Our body cures itself by shedding off all the cells that are damaged. You see this in the form of skin peeling itself from different regions. This is a natural method just to let your skin heal itself. 

This process also causes burnt sensations and redness. To ease out the pain, try these remedies:

  1. Take frequent cool baths. 
  2. Apply moisturiser to replenish 
  3. Hydrate your body by drinking more water.
  4. Aloe vera gel

Refrain from taking pain relievers. You will recover within 3 to 5 days. 

Most of all, you are exposed to sunlight even if you are in your home. On high altitudes, both UVA and UVB radiation attack. Do not assume clouds can protect you by blocking the radiation. It will still reach you. The best way, simply, is to wear full-length clothes, cover as much as possible and apply sun skin cream. That’s it! 

You might leave your body exposed to whatever radiation and let it heal naturally, but the consequences of sun damage are generally irreversible. 

For any outer question/queries, comment below; we will get back in no time! 

Don’t destroy your body and then allow it to heal itself. Instead, Take good care of your body and skin. Let it shine, just like you!

Good Reads: 

How to wear sunglasses over spectacles?

Contact Lenses or Spectacles

About the author

I am Supriya, a writer by passion and I have been following up with it from the past 12 years. Stamped initially as a Software Engineer, I switched to ‘All Things Travel’. I travel to find coherence in life and love stories. Admittingly craving local food, meandering through the alleys, and treasuring talks with elderlies, I prefer backpacking to connect with the roots of a place. Bylines include Tripoto, Plan the Unplanned, Women’s Web and Rough Guides. Know her better: supriyasahu.com
3 Responses
  1. Remini

    I really appreciate you taking the time to creat really great information. The information was really helped to me Once again Thank you very much…

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