Play It Safe in the Sun

If you are an outdoor athlete, spring weather may mean that it is time to start taking sun protection more seriously. Even though the temperature may be struggling to reach 50°F (10°C), the sun can still wreak havoc on your skin.

With a few simple strategies, you can enjoy all of the benefits of exercising outdoors without sacrificing your skin, your health, or your athletic prowess.

Skin Cancer: the Basics

Most skin cancers are preventable and the majority are curable, if detected early.

The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends checking your own skin once a month. They also recommend seeing your doctor once a year for a professional skin exam.

The main risk factors include having:

  • Fair skin
  • Blonde or red hair
  • Blue, gray, or green eyes
  • A history of sunburns early in life
  • A history of indoor tanning
  • Many moles and freckles
  • Family or personal history of skin cancer

Anyone can get skin cancer, even those with darker skin. Greater amounts of melanin in the skin provide natural protection. However, family history, ethnicity, and skin cancers that aren't caused by UV exposure can still put darker-skinned people at risk. For example, darker-skinned people are more likely to get a type of skin cancer that affects the palms of the hands and soles of the feet.

Sun-savvy Solutions

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your skin.

Avoid the sun between 10 am and 2 pm.
The sun's rays are at their worst during these hours. Exercise in the early morning or later in the day—a time when it is also cooler. If lunchtime is the only time you can workout, seek out a shady route, load up on the sunscreen, and keep it brief.

Use a broad-spectrum sunscreen.
You need one that blocks UVA and UVB rays, with a SPF of 30 or higher.

Wear a broad-brimmed hat.
Baseball hats leave cancer-prone areas such as ears and the back of the neck exposed. A smarter option is a hat with at least a 2- to 3-inch brim. If you have thinning hair or are bald, a hat is a must.

Wear long sleeves and long pants when possible.
Look for clothes with tightly woven material. When you apply sunblock, you should still apply it on areas that will be covered by clothing. A typical T-shirt has an SPF rating lower than 15. There is clothing for exercise that are made to have higher SPF ratings.

Protect your ears, nose, cheeks, and hands.
Since the majority of skin cancers occur on these areas, consider them top priority.

Don't skip the lips.
Skin cancer can also occur on the lips. Look for a waterproof or water-resistant, lip-specific product with a high SPF. Plan on reapplying often as lips are moist and lip balms have a tendency to wear off easily.

Wear sunglasses.
Choose sunglasses with UV protection. This will also protect the delicate skin around the eyes.

Applying Sunscreen and Keeping It On

Apply it early.
Apply sunscreen 20 minutes before any sun exposure so that it has time to chemically react with the skin.

Choose water-resistant formulas.
Sport formulas are usually water-resistant, easy to apply, will not drip into the eyes, and will not interfere with a grip on a tennis racket or a golf club.

Do not be stingy.
It should take about 1 ounce, or a shot glass-worth, of sunblock to cover your whole body.

If you are walking or doing a low-intensity activity, reapply sunblock at least every 2 hours. If you are sweating profusely, or are in the water or a windy area, apply it more frequently.

It Is Not Just the Sun

There are a number of other factors that increase the sun's UV radiation, including: .

Sun reflected on snow can produce as much ultraviolet penetration as the sun on sand, especially at higher altitudes. So snowboarders and skiers need adequate protection on exposed areas, regardless of the temperature.

Wind can thin sunblock, so make sure to reapply every 2 hours or so if you are in a windy environment (think beaches, skiing, and sailing).

Clouds and Haze
Cloudy days are no excuse to skip the sunblock. About 80% of the sun's rays still get through.

The closer you are to the equator, the more harmful the sun's rays are.

UV radiation increases nearly 4% every 1,000 feet above sea level you go.

Sand, concrete, water, and snow are highly reflective surfaces that can expose you to more of the sun's rays.

Burn Tactics

If, despite your best intentions, you discover your skin is starting to turn a painful shade of red, follow these recommendations:

Get out of the sun
Get out of the sun to stop from burning even more.

Take a bath.
Keep the water cool, not hot. This can soothe the skin

After the bath, gently rub a good moisturizer onto your skin. Avoid using petroleum or oil-based moisturizers.

Pain reliever.
Consider using a mild over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain reliever if you are feeling pain.

Seek medical attention.
For serious blistering, see your doctor right away.


American Academy of Dermatology
American Cancer Society


Canadian Cancer Society
Canadian Dermatology Association


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Accessed March 17, 2017.
Basal cell carcinoma of the skin. EBSCO Dynamed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated December 28, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2017.
Cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma. EBSCO Dynamed Plus website. Available at: http://www.dynamed.... Updated December 28, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2017.
Essential outdoor sun safety tips for winter. Skin Cancer Foundation website. Available at:
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Updated December 17, 2010. Accessed March 17, 2017.
Five ways to treat a sunburn. Skin Cancer Foundation website. Available at:
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Updated May 27, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2017.
Lip cancer: Not uncommon, often overlooked. Skin Cancer Foundation website. Available at:
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Accessed March 17, 2017.
Melanoma. EBSCO Dynamed Plus website. Available at: Updated January 10, 2017. Accessed March 17, 2017.
Mohs: The gold standard. Skin Cancer Foundation website. Available at:
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Updated May 18, 2016. Accessed March 17, 2017.
Sunscreen FAQs. American Academy of Dermatology website. Available at: Accessed March 17, 2017.
Last reviewed March 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP
Last Updated: 3/17/2017

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