It may not be a widely talked about fact, but the cockpit of an aeroplane is a location with a high risk for exposure to ultraviolet (UV) radiation. If you, as a pilot, are not wearing sunscreen — you probably should be!
Despite fancy coatings aimed at minimising radiation, in-depth studies have shown windows on most airplanes do not completely block UV-A radiation.
At altitude, not only is the sun much stronger, but pilots can find themselves sat in the sun for extended periods of time. Longhaul pilots and flight attendants can be on flights up to 17 hours, and depending on routing, it might be sunny for virtually the whole way!
When planes are at cruising altitude, they are above much of the Earth’s protective atmosphere. That much is obvious. But, you might be surprised to know how quickly the earths protective atmosphere fades at typical commercial flight altitudes. During the cruise, between 31,000 and 41,000 ft (ca. 12 km), where most commercial aircraft fly, UV radiation exposure doubles.
Debates about pilots’ needs for sunscreen were once kept quiet, with airlines keen to downplay any adverse effects on their pilots and flight attendants. These discussions have been reignited after one new study indicated that pilots flying for about an hour at 30,000 feet (ca. 9 km) receive the same amount of radiation as if they had spent 20 minutes in a tanning bed!
In this article, we’ll have a look at whether commercial airline pilots wear suncream when they are flying — and as a passenger, whether you should too!
Do pilots typically wear sunscreen when flying?
From personal experience, I would say less than 50% of airline pilots I fly with currently wear sunscreen when flying. However, this number is growing. Throughout my career, the number of pilots beginning to take sun protection seriously continues to improve.
So, why don’t the majority of pilots bother? I believe it’s largely due to a lack of awareness and information about the issue.
While, pilots have long known about the drying effects of conditioned aircraft air — chapstick is a necessity and plenty of pilots opt to wear moisturiser — sunscreen is rarely talked about. It is often, wrongly, assumed that aircraft glass blocks all UV rays.
In well-over a decade of six-monthly pilot medical checks, various aeromedical doctors have warned me about the usual dangers of sleep deprivation, alcohol intake, the need to wear sunglasses for eye protection, and even caffeine consumption!
However, I have never personally experienced any airline recommending their pilots or crew to wear sunblock at work.
This could potentially be due to litigation issues, or the fact that airlines and their aeromedical doctors are still playing catchup with the latest research into UV exposure at high altitudes.
Should pilots wear sunscreen?
Arguably, yes, pilots should wear sunscreen whilst flying. New studies continue to show that pilots and flight attendants have significantly higher rates of skin cancer than the general population.
In 2019, the British Journal of Dermatology published a meta-study titled “Do Airline Pilots and Cabin Crew Have Raised Risks of Melanoma and Other Skin Cancers?” This “study of studies” found that pilots and cabin crew were about twice as likely to develop melanoma than the general population.
More recently, in 2023 the US department of defence published the results of their study of over 150 thousand military aircrews dating back over 40 years. What they found was relatively shocking, and certainly backs higher sunscreen usage for pilots.
Should passengers wear sunscreen too?
As for passengers, the risk of UV exposure is significantly less, but still present, especially if you’re sitting in a window seat.
Although the windows in the passenger cabin are smaller than the cockpit windows, they also do not completely block UV-A rays.
Official advice is a bit of a mixed bag. Some, like the Australian Cancer Council, don’t think it’s critical for passengers to wear suncream.
A combination of smaller windows, significantly less flying, and plenty of time during the flights when the blinds will be closed to simulate darkness, means that arguably it is not too important for passengers to wear sunscreen.
There is no credible evidence to suggest passengers can get sunburnt on commercial airline flights, so the Cancer Council does not recommend the need for sun protection.Can you get sunburnt on a plane? — Australian Cancer Council
On the other hand, some dermatologists have been recommending wearing sunscreen or moisturiser with factor 30 before any flight:
If you use a daily moisturiser with an SPF of 30 or more in it, then you don’t need to worry. But even if you do – Dr Rai recommends that you reapply it every two hours – especially on long-haul flights.Wear sunscreen on flights to protect against skin cancer and wrinkles — The Sun
So, if you’re on a long flight and sitting next to the window, it may be a good idea to apply some sunscreen, especially on a clear day. Dermatologists also recommended, closing the window shades during peak sunlight hours, which can reduce exposure.
Summary: Slap on the factor 50!
This is a topic that is not often discussed in the flying community, but it’s essential for those who spend considerable time in flight. For pilots, protecting your skin from harmful UV radiation is crucial at any altitude, but it’s especially so when you’re six miles above the Earth’s surface.
As a passenger, the evidence for wearing suncream is less conclusive, but many dermatologists still recommend it.
The study found that when crew members were diagnosed with cancer, they were more likely to survive than members of the general population, which the study suggested was because they were diagnosed earlier due to regular required medical checkupsHigher cancer rates found in military pilots — AP News
One good piece of news that came out of both the military and civilian studies, is that despite significantly higher melanoma rates, pilots were less likely to die from skin cancer. This is attributed to their frequent and rigorous medical checks, which means that early detection is possible.
In addition, while pilots can’t avoid flying up at altitudes that make radiation exposure worse, they can take some precautions: