I have my skincare travel routine down to an art at this point, I know exactly what I take each time to combat potential breakouts and dryness from air travel and change in climate. However, when I traveled to Quito, Ecuador recently, a city 9,000 above sea level, nearly on the equator, I found myself unprepared.
Coming from New York City, 33 feet above sea level, altitude is a non-factor. While the current climate is cold, the precipitation has stopped my skin from drying out the way that it did during my many years in Los Angeles. Though Quito has an average daytime high of 70 degrees year-round, the change in climate immediately began to affect my skin despite the balmy temperatures.
The most dangerous effect of high altitude on skin, is of course, the proximity of the sun and strong UV rays.
Within the first 24 hours I began to notice dryness and redness on my skin, and on the second day I got the worst sunburn of my life during a 30 minute morning stroll in 55 degree, partly cloudy weather. While intellectually, I could have told you beforehand that high altitude and proximity to the equator create a dangerous combination, in the moment it didn’t occur to me how much damage could be done in such a short period of time when the sun was barely shining.
A few things I began implementing on post-burn:
- Aside from applying a minimum of SPF 50 every two hours, it is still a good idea to cover as much skin as possible. UV rays can penetrate clothes, so holding the cloth up to the sun to see if light penetrates is a good measure of the protection it can provide. In heat, a lightweight, tightly knit, dark colored shawl is great to wrap around the upper body.
- Hats are a great way to protect the scalp.
- If you have long hair, wearing it down is another way to protect the back of the neck.
- Sunglasses not only provide your eyes much needed protection, a large enough pair also provides the skin around the eyes good coverage.
Other unwanted effects of being so close to the sun include general dryness. Here are a few ways to combat dry, dehydrated skin.
- After cleansing your skin, apply a hydrating, lightweight moisturizer like So, So Coco Stay while the skin is still damp. This helps your skin lock in the ingredients. If you are at a higher-altitude in cold weather (maybe a ski trip), a thicker moisturizer will be more efficient.
- Wash your skin in warm water and avoid scrubbing as this removes the top layer of skin, therefore leaving you more vulnerable to UV rays
- For those that live in high-altitude areas, humidifiers can be skin-savers, especially for those dealing with eczema or other sensitive skin conditions. For travelers, a portable humidifier might be a good option for those really feeling the effects of altitude change.
- If you do get burned, generously apply aloe to soothe the skin, followed by a moisturizer.
While being unprepared for high altiude skincare on the equator was unpleasant, it was a good reminder of just how powerful the sun is. Many common excuses for not properly protecting skin are, 'I don't get burned easily,' or 'I have more melanin to protect me,' however everyone benefits from sun protection and everyone can experience sun damage even if it doesn't appear as a burn. If you are coming from a low altitude area or away from the equator, your skin, no matter how much you think you know about it, will likely not react the same in a new region.
A few simple steps and a little planning can save your skin from severe, irreversible damage down the road.