Clouds - The Frienemy in the Sky

Clouds. They offer pretty views, enhance sunsetting skies, and give shade on hot summer days. There is no doubt we owe a lot to the cumulus, cirrus, and stratus balls of water particles floating along in the atmosphere. However, too often, especially during the approaching summer season, clouds conceal harmful ultraviolet light that is damaging your skin, and potentially forming the beginnings of skin cancer. These clouds could very much be considered a friendly enemy – the “frienemy” of the sky.

The surprise sunburn

Daytime shade is great – it cools the ambient air and provides relief from the heat. It is easy to disregard sun safety when there is no sun to be seen. UV rays, however, are still penetrating the atmosphere and bombarding your skin. Maybe not every one is getting through the atmosphere, but enough are to cause serious harm to an exposed epidermis. Ever come off the beach, the boat, the lake, or vacation saying, “I don’t know HOW I got this red? It wasn’t even sunny out!!” That’s our frienemy clouds at work.

Hidden UV rays

If you’ve been to Florida or California on a warm, breezy, partially cloudy day, chances are you have experienced a lax awareness of the UV danger hidden in the sky. There is something relieving about a cloud cover – a meteorological illusion that makes one think, “Hey, it’s not really THAT hot out, I should be fine!” only to reach for the aloe several hours later. That effect is amplified in certain environments – the lower latitudes, the higher elevations, and environments that reflect sunlight (water, beach, snow leap to mind).

False sense of security

Clouds can also pop in and out of our day quicker than a barefoot walk in hot sand. Check the weather outside or online and see “Cloudy”, and too often the sunscreen gets left behind, only to watch said clouds dissipate as the morning goes on (and turns into a more intense afternoon shine). Even those days that seem to be cloudy the entire time can mask the fluctuations of coverage, giving a false sense of security to someone while damaging them all the while – real frienemy stuff.

To make matters even more complicated, partially cloudy days may actually INCREASE the amount of UV rays that we are exposed to on the ground – up to 25% more than on a completely clear day. The science behind it involves direct and scattered sunlight and is called the “broken-cloud effect”. So while a cloud cover CAN block many of the the UVA and UVB rays, it may also leave you with a false sense of security that you don’t need sun protection, and actually expose you to more UV light.

Shade from clouds isn't protective

You would think melanoma patients would not need this reminder, but alas, even we are prone to underestimating. On a recent anniversary trip, clouds and canopy gave what felt like safe cover from the tropical sun. Despite HAVING A HAT, I ended the hike with a red forehead. Why? Well, for starters, there’s no hair covering said forehead. More relevant, though, is me removing the hat for part of the walk, when the clouds and trees provided what *felt* like adequate shade.

Don't underestimate the power of UV rays

To recap – a bald melanoma patient didn’t have the sense or awareness to keep his dome fully covered during a cloudy, tree-shaded hike, and paid the price for it. My vacation faux-pas should be your warning: never underestimate the power of the UV rays, no matter how much shade you feel the heavens are providing.

When out this summer, remember temperature does not have an exact correlation with UV risk. Sure, the risk goes up in the warmer months, but a cloudy, cooler day does not put the Earth further away from the sun. Too many times, a cloud masks the true risk of UV light skin damage, and an increased risk of skin cancer. Keep yourself protected on those partially-sunny days, and you will make sure that those frienemy clouds do not betray you – or your skin.

By providing your email address, you are agreeing to our privacy policy. We never sell or share your email address.

This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

Join the conversation

or create an account to comment.
poll graphic

Community Poll

Have you entered our Skin Cancer Awareness Month Giveaway?