Diana Kelly Levey

The Sun Protection Guide for Athletes

July 23, 2015 | Categories:

If you quickly slap on a face lotion with SPF 15 just minutes before your afternoon run, and pat yourself on the back for being good about your sun protection, we’re here to tell you you’re not doing enough.

Athletes who focus on taking care of their bodies with training plans, proper nutrition and adequate rest, but then go out and get scorched while training in the summer sun, can actually be interfering with their recovery process.

“Your skin is part of your body and your well-being, and so much of being an elite-level athlete is recovery,” says professional cyclist Evelyn Stevens. “If you have a huge sunburn on the back of your legs, your body is going to focus on that recovery, rather than recovering from the training effort you just put in.”

Sunburn can be dehydrating, causing blood vessels to dilate and telling your body to send more blood to your skin, so you’re also more likely to lose fluid, says Dr. Daniela Kroshinsky, director of dermatology at Massachusetts General Hospital.

Then, of course, there’s the biggest reason of all to properly protect yourself: According to skincancer.org, each year nearly 5 million people are treated for skin cancer in the United States, and one in five Americans will develop skin cancer in their lifetime.

With these risks in mind, we’ve collected some expert facts and professional tips to help you stay safe during your toasty summer workouts.


If you still think getting a tan gives you a “healthy glow,” think again. It’s really your body’s response to ultraviolet damage. “The body produces more color to shield our genetic material from having ultraviolet light absorption, and a tan is a sign you’ve been exposed to harmful rays,” Kroshinsky says.

While people with lighter skin and light eyes have a higher risk for sunburn and skin cancer, every skin type is susceptible to harmful UV exposure. “If there is a strong family history of skin cancer, that usually means it’s because of ethnicity or genetics, and you’ll likely have an increased propensity for acting negatively to sun exposure,” Kroshinsky says.

Taking certain medications, especially ones for acne that include the ingredient doxycycline, can also make your skin more susceptible to sunburn.

Stevens used to have a full-time desk job in the finance industry, so the few times she was able to get some sun, she soaked it up. But she became more conscious of sunscreen after a bad crash on her bike a few years ago that left her with facial scars. Doctors told her to stay out of the sun as much as possible — tough to do for a pro cyclist. So the 32-year-old Menlo Park, Colorado, resident takes care to load up on sunscreen every morning before she goes out on her first ride.

“I put on a base layer of organic SPF 30 sunscreen all over in the morning. Then just before I’m about to go on my ride, I’ll add more sunscreen with zinc to protect some bad scars I have on my face from a crash,” she says. “I try to always remember to apply on my face, arms, legs, and neck and ears.” Stevens says she likes paraben-free Sanitas sunscreen.

Pro tip: To prevent sunscreen from getting into her eyes when she sweats, Stevens applies a bit of thicker sunscreen on her forehead — the heavier consistency helps it stay put better when she’s cycling and sweating.

Her sunscreens last for about an hour or two during workouts, but after a shower, she’ll always apply lotion that has SPF if she’s going to be out the rest of the day.


While it’s good that your daily foundation or face moisturizer has SPF in it, don’t count on cosmetic products to act as solid sun barriers if you’re out for the day.

Sunscreens are broken down into physical and chemical blockers. “Most products have both to cover the UV broad spectrum range so you’re reflecting and absorbing UV light,” Kroshinsky says.

The physical blockers are zinc oxide and titanium oxide, and they block sunlight from getting into your cells; if you apply a thick zinc sunscreen, it’ll offer protection right away. The chemical ingredients are the ones that absorb and prevent that UV radiation.

But some of those ingredients are being scrutinized. The Environmental Working Group has questioned the safety of oxybenzone and retinyl palmitate, the former being linked to hormone disruption and the latter to carcinogens and sun sensitivity in high-dosage tests on rodents.

However, both ingredients have been studied for amounts used on human skin and proven to be safe, says Elizabeth Hale, a board-certified dermatologist and clinical associate professor of dermatology at the New York University Langone Medical Center. Still, she’s happy to provide concerned patients with alternatives. Hale suggests looking for sunscreens with those physical blockers mentioned above. The Environmental Working Group has a list of recommended sunscreens here.

“I live in sunscreen,” Walsh Jennings says (she reps Skin Authority and uses SPF 30). “I put everything on before I leave the house and reapply sunscreen like crazy throughout the day. For me, it’s always been super important to make daily sunscreen application a habit.”

Before your outdoor workout, apply roughly a shot-glass-sized amount of sport-formulated or waterproof sunscreen — they adhere to the skin better and are less likely to sweat off. Keep in mind: Sport formulas don’t mean you can stay in the sun longer; they’re just less likely to come off with sweating and friction than the average sunscreen.

Like Walsh Jennings, be vigilant about reapplying any sunscreen every two to three hours that you’re out in the sun, and every hour if you’re going to be in water.

Pro tip: Kroshinsky advises her patients to use SPF 45 or higher, since recent research discovered that people put on only about a quarter of the amount that’s recommended in test doses. “So you often get a lower SPF than what’s advertised on the bottle,” she says.

To compensate, dermatologists like Hale and Kroshinsky suggest using a higher SPF. Kroshinsky applies a base layer with an SPF of 55 before going out, and then will use a spray to ensure that she’s covered all the hard-to-reach areas. (Be careful not to use the spray in windy conditions, and go over your whole body twice to make sure you didn’t miss any spots.)

Says Hale: “I think the happy medium is to cap it at SPF 50 and to reapply every two hours, or every hour or so if you’re sweating heavily.”


Commonly Skipped Body Parts

After you’ve applied that shot-glass-sized amount of sunscreen to your body, make sure you double-check that you covered these frequently skipped areas, where our dermatologists said they often see sun damage: around the eyes/eyebrows, the tops of the feet, the nose, the ears, the lips and your scalp where you part your hair.

“Check your own skin regularly, and notice anything that is new or changing, in particular something that doesn’t seem to be healing properly,” Kroshinsky says. Make an appointment with a dermatologist or your general practitioner to check out any of those symptoms.

Watch Your Watch

Avoiding outdoor exercise from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m., especially during Daylight Savings Time, will keep you out of the sun’s strongest UV rays, says Dr. Darrell S. Rigel, clinical professor of dermatology at New York University Medical Center. Always put sunscreen on when you’re out on cloudy days as well, as the UV rays can permeate the clouds and cause sun damage. And keep geography in mind: The air is cleaner and thinner at high altitudes, and so your UV exposure is greater when you’re in the mountains, and the sun’s rays are stronger near the equator.

“I emphasize to my patients that we need sunscreen 365 days a year, because the weather can easily change from rain in the morning to a very sunny day later,” says Dr. Hale. The sun’s UVB rays give us sunburn, but the UVA rays penetrate 365 days a year and can pass through windows and clouds to damage your skin.

PRO TIP: “My skin regime is pretty much the same whether it’s cloudy or sunny,” says three-time beach volleyball Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings, who spends several hours a day training outside. “Even when it’s cloudy, your skin can still get burned.”

This article originally appeared on ESPNW.com.

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