The sun can damage your skin in so many ways and some of the associated health risks, like melanoma, can even be life-threatening, which means it’s time to start getting serious about taking the right precautions for proper protection. And perhaps this is especially true for athletes who spend extended periods of time training and competing outside. Yes, spending time outside is actually associated with a handful of incredible health benefits, but it also increases your risk for health issues related to sun-damaged skin. So, before you head out to play, make sure you know how to protect your skin properly by following these important skincare tips and guidelines.
There’s no such thing was “waterproof” or “sweatproof” sunscreen. In fact, the FDA banned manufactures from using either term on labels back in 2011. Instead, you’ll find water-resistant sunscreens, but even these will fade from your skin after an extended period of time spent in the water or sweating. To keep you skin protected, you should reapply every 40 to 80 minutes, depending on what’s noted on the product’s label.
Especially for athletes who just want to get outside and play, spray sunscreens may seem like the most convenient option, but according to dermatologists and the Environmental Working Group (EWG), while they might save you some time, they’re certainly not saving your health. “Spray products do not apply enough product on the skin and the protecting ingredients are dispersed in droplets that are spotted on the skin and don’t entirely cover every cell,” says Dr. Cynthia Bailey, a board-certified dermatologist and the President and CEO of Advanced Skin Care and Dermatology Physicians. Additionally, the EWG warns against the dangers of inhaling the harmful ingredients used in many popular spray sunscreens.
The sun’s powerful UV rays can penetrate through clouds, so just because you can’t feel or see the sun doesn’t mean you’re not at risk. Bailey noted that too many people commonly believe their skin is safe on a cloudy day and she suggests using sunscreen protection every day, no matter what time of day and even if you plan on being in the shade.
Bailey also emphasized the importance of using adequate amounts of sunscreen for each application. The American Academy of Dermatology suggests that adults use at least one ounce (or enough to fill a shot glass) and points out that it should be applied 15 minutes before exposure to all uncovered skin including your ears, neck, lips, hands, scalp, the tops of your feet and your legs. Most sunscreens come in bottles that hold about three to six ounces. That equals out to about three to six applications, so if one bottle lasts you any longer than that, you’re likely not using enough.
According to the EWG, SPF (sun protection factor) tops out at 50, so anything labeled above that is only creating a false sense of protection. In fact, in their 2015 report they called the term “outdated” because it only refers to protection against UVB rays, or the kinds that burn the skin. “It has little to do with a product’s ability to protect skin from UVA rays, which penetrate deep into the body, accelerate skin aging, may suppress the immune system and may cause skin cancer,” the organization noted. Bailey said that an SPF 30 sunscreen will protect against 97 percent of UVB rays. “After that the percent of UVB rays blocked doesn’t go up very much as the SPF numbers go up,” she explained. “If you follow the recommended one ounce of sunscreen application for the average sized adult body surface in a swim suit, then at SPF 30 you are equally protected by either product.” Instead of going for a higher SPF, check to make sure that your sunscreen is labeled “broad spectrum,” which means it can protect against both UVB and UVA rays.
The EWG recommends avoiding sunscreens that include oxybenzone, which has been shown to “disrupt the hormone system,” and retinyl palmitate, which may “trigger damage” and could possibly cause cancer (Coopertone sport sunscreens contain both). Bailey also recommends against products that contain avobenzone because they are not stable and can break down when they work to neutralize UV rays on your skin. (For a full list of products you should avoid, see the EWG's "Hall of Shame" list.)
It almost sounds crazy, but according to the EWG you shouldn’t rely on sunscreen as your first source of protection from the sun. In fact, the organization said that after clothing, shade and planning to spend time outside while the sun is low in the sky (like in the early morning or late afternoon), sunscreen should be your last resort when it comes to protection. “Sunscreen can’t block every single type of light ray emitted by the sun,” Bailey said. “Even zinc oxide lets the very end of the UV-A1 rays through. It’s why you need to wear a full brimmed hat and sun protective clothing when possible for the best protection.” You should aslo make an effort to protect your eyes (which are also susceptible to UV ray damage) by wearing sunglasses whenever possible.
According to Bailey, zinc oxide is one of the only broad spectrum ingredients approved by the FDA that effectively protects against UVB and UVA rays— including UV-A1 rays, which she mentioned are the most harmful type. For a list of the best sport sunscreesn see: The Best Sunscreens for Athletes and Outdoor Adventurers
The harsh reality is that you should be making an effort to protect your exposed skin every time you step outside, not only when you’re participating in outdoor activities. And this rule applies even during non-summer months. Bailey said that one of the most common mistake people make is simply not using sunscreen every day, so make sure you apply it anytime you’re having fun outside.
“You can’t reverse the skin DNA damage that results from excessive sun exposure,” Bailey said. Avoiding sunburn should be your top priority because with each burn your risk for melanoma, the most dangerous and potentially deadly type of skin cancer, increases.