under the sun

Why You Should Wear Sunscreen on a Plane

Photo: Dragan Radojevic/Getty Images/EyeEm Premium

I’m a window-seat person. I need to lean against something to sleep, and I like staring out at fluffy clouds and watching our descent, marveling about what a small world we live in. We live in an ant village and we don’t even know it! Unfortunately, a friend recently told me that my preference for windowside daydreaming was putting me at greater risk for UV exposure.

Cut to my stricken face, as someone who always walks on the shady side of the street and never dines alfresco (thanks, Julianne Moore). According to this friend, her dermatologist told her to avoid window seats and always slather on a coating of SPF before flying. I asked dermatologists Dr. Dennis Gross and Dr. Sejal Shah if this was really good advice. Here’s they told me.

Up in the air, you’re exposed to more UV rays.

As you soar to a cruising altitude, you’re also flying closer to the ozone layer (by about 20,000 feet.) According to Dr. Dennis Gross, that means the sun’s rays are even more damaging to skin then when you’re on the ground.

Airplane pilots are at high risk for sun exposure. A 2014 study done by the University of California found that 56 minutes in the cockpit of a plane yielded the same amount of radiation as 20 minutes in a tanning bed. “Airplane windshields do not completely block UVA radiation and therefore are not enough to protect pilots,” said Dr Martina Sanlorenzo, of the University of California, San Francisco, in the study.

But I’m protected being in the plane, right?

No. No. No. Ultraviolet radiation is made up of two types of light: UVA and UVB. Both are damaging. UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and are the primary causes of photo-aging. UVB rays target the outermost layers, and cause skin reddening and skin cancer. The tin can you’re flying in does not offer complete UV protection, even if you’re not a pilot. Dr. Dennis Gross says, “Most plane windows will block UVB rays but the UVA rays can still penetrate the glass.”

But I’m protected if the shade is down, right?

No. There’s a reason that dermatologists prefer aisle seats, and it’s not because you are perhaps less likely to get sucked out of a plane. Dr. Sejal Shah and Dr. Gross both agree that pulling down the plastic shade does block out some UV light, but UVB rays can still get through. Dr. Gross says, “Unless your airplane blinds are made of metal, which reflects all UV, they won’t completely block out all those rays.” And remember again that you’re already being surrounded by super-strong light.

Oh no! So aisle seats are okay?

Sort of. Even aisle seats are at a danger of UV light by reflection. Clouds aren’t just a symbol of Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson’s love. They’re also ice crystals suspended in the atmosphere, which makes them highly reflective of UV light. All those cute cumulus and cirrus clouds can fill the cabin with ambient ultraviolet light, regardless of where you’re sitting. And you thought snakes on a plane were bad.

So should I just take the train from now on?

Actually, there’s a pretty easy fix: Just wear sunscreen before you get on a plane. As you should being doing every day, anyway.

Why You Should Wear Sunscreen on a Plane