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For Outdoor Winter Olympians, Combating the Conditions Is Critical

Boots, goggles and down jackets are all important pieces of equipment, but it's skincare that reigns supreme when it comes to managing the mountain elements.

One morning in mid-December 2021, U.S. freestyle skier Hannah Soar was waiting at the top of the moguls course in Huez, France, for the start of a World Cup event when she realized that she had forgotten a critical part of her preparation. “I was like, ‘Holy s---, I don’t have my sunscreen,’” Soar, 22, says. Thankfully, though, the panic proved brief: One of her coaches happened to be carrying a spare stick of high-SPF stuff, which Soar uncapped and slathered on her face before taking off down the mountain.

“If they didn’t have that, I would’ve been burned so easy,” she says. “Up there, I’m not messing around.”

A self-described “blond-haired, blue-eyed, pale, pale girl,” Soar learned about the importance of skincare the hard way, resisting her parents’ attempts to slather her face with various protective creams on the slopes of Killington, Vt., as a kid. “I didn’t understand you could get sun- and wind-burned,” Soar says. “My lips would be peeling, my nose would be red and people would call me Rudolph.” Lesson learned: Aside from last month’s near-dermatological debacle, Soar always packs a cache of lip balms, sunscreens and zinc-infused lotions for every competition to help avoid chapping, cracking or worse.

Illustration of two people holding up a tube of chapstick

For outdoor Winter Olympians such as Soar, frigid temperatures and whipping winds generated by Mother Nature are as threatening as any opponent—and that’s without considering the ball of fire in the sky. “You have to recognize that your job has risks, and one of them is skin damage,” says U.S. biathlete Joanne Reid. “You’re going to get a lot of radiation, especially at elevation.” The potential consequences, meanwhile, boil down to a lot of hurt, both in the body and on the leaderboard. “To compete at your best, there’s so much you need to be aware of,” Soar says. “The last thing you need is burnt cheeks taking your focus away.”

Whereas Soar usually sticks to products provided by the skincare company Dermatone, which sponsors U.S. Ski & Snowboard, other athletes turn to home remedies for their protection. “A month ago, I was racing at home [in British Columbia] and this girl came up to me and gave me this tube of, I don't know, fat or oil or something that you layer over your face,” Canadian alpine skier Cassidy Gray says. “I think it was her mom that created it. It was super random, but it really helped when it was really cold out.”

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Like Soar, Gray points to genetics in explaining why she calls herself a “crazy skincare person.” As the 20-year-old puts it: “Well, I’m a ginger, so basically as soon as I was old enough to walk into the sun by myself, I learned how to put sunscreen on.” And while she might apply more often than the average athlete—about every two hours, on top of the fatty oil—Gray is also not necessarily unique in her diligence. “Basically if you ask any of the girls on the hill, they have sunscreen,” Gray says. “When your whole life is being outside, it’s nice to not have to worry about dealing with burns.” 

For U.S. cross country skier Julia Kern, seeing the steps that her elite peers took to protect their skin was an eye-opening (and cheek-singeing) experience. “Until I got to the World Cup level, I’d never done anything,” Kern, 24, says. “But everyone was so prepared, having the products already with them.” Now she ritually puts on lip balm, sunscreen and skin protectant before each race, though reapplication is often required: Kern recalls Team USA physical therapists passing out tins of SPF 30 cream at the starting line of last November’s –4° World Cup race in Finland. “We’ve had a really cold start to the season,” Kern says. “This year, [skincare] has been more important than ever.”

If the current forecast is to be believed, the 2022 Winter Olympics figure to continue this trend. “Beijing will be really windy and really cold,” Reid says. “We had the same problem in PyeongChang [in '18], but apparently this is supposed to be even worse.” Not that Reid needs reminding; her roommate is a dermatologist. “He’s not pushy,” she says. “But the crazy stories he tells, it makes you wary.”

Kern, too, is familiar with skincare scare tactics. “When I joined the national team, coaches would send pictures of athletes who’d burned as a reminder to wear sunscreen,” she says. “It was funny but also horrific.” But there’s no reason she can’t enjoy the process, either, so long as she’s being safe: In addition to her usual haul of prerace products, Kern brought an extra Dermatone tin to Beijing. The greasy substance, she explains, “is also a great binding mechanism” for the colorful glitter with which she and her teammates decorate their cheeks before they hit the mountain to meet their competition—and Mother Nature.

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