Exercise Sun Safety: Wear Sunscreen

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With summer right around the corner, everyone should be thinking about sun protection. In fact, those of us who spend many hours outside during the early spring should already be ahead of the curve.

Still, many people misunderstand both the dangers and the necessary steps to protect their skin from sun damage, which includes skin cancer and acute damage like sunburn and sun poisoning.

There's No 'Safe' Tan

Probably the biggest misconception people have about sun care is that suntans are healthy. The fact is, a suntan is the body's response to damage. When the sun's rays are absorbed by the skin, cells called melanocytes produce melanin, a pigment that gives the skin color. The added melanin offers increased protection for future exposure.

However, it's important to emphasize that if skin tans, damage has already occurred. Moreover, sunburn is a severe response to excessive sun exposure, which exceeds the skin's melanin production response.

More: Summer Running: 5 Tips to Beat the Heat

What Harm Is a Little Burn?

I often hear, "I got a little sunburn, but it's no big deal." Unfortunately, while tans and burns are signs of damage, each time we burn we greatly increase our risk for skin cancer—one blistering sunburn doubles your risk for malignant melanoma, the most dangerous and ever-increasing form of skin cancer.

Athletes in particular should keep in mind that sunburns and acute sun poisoning can cause headaches, nausea, fever and fatigue. Nevertheless, a 'healthy tan' is often popular, particularly among cyclists, who often pride themselves on their tan lines.

More: What Happened When I Got Skin Cancer

Have Sunscreen, Will Tan

Another common misconception is that wearing sunscreen will prevent tanning. In fact, those of us who spend long hours in the sun will tan no matter how much sunscreen we use. Rather than going without sunscreen for a few days to get tan, use it liberally because even the strongest broad spectrum sunscreens can't block 100 percent of UVB rays, and are even less effective against UVA rays. You'll still tan through sunscreen, so there's no reason to avoid using it.

Liberal use of sunscreen is the least we can do to protect ourselves, but proper use is critical! Apply 1 ounce (about 2 tablespoons) of at least SPF 30 sunscreen to all exposed skin at least 20 minutes before going outside to allow it time to 'soak' in and offer the best protection. Be sure to get all the easily-missed areas like behind ears and knees, as well as below your waist band. Apply a little extra on the nose and forearms, which get the most exposure. Reapply every two hours, regardless of SPF.

More: Sun Protection Facts You Should Know

Sunscreen, Clothing, Ergogenic Aids?

The human body can be considered a near-perfect black radiator, absorbing 97 percent of radiant energy directed at it, regardless of skin color. So while it may sound implausible, wearing both sunscreen and clothing can actually enhance performance by reducing the amount of radiant energy absorbed by the skin; even small increases in body temperature can adversely affect performance.

Additionally, wearing sunscreen on covered areas during hot and sunny days can be beneficial too, since those great wicking fabrics are also great at letting more sun in.

More: How to Protect Your Skin When Running Outside

Sun Block or Sweat Block?

While use of sunscreen can reduce radiant heat absorption, many athletes are concerned that sunscreen will also hamper sweating. However, data from a 2000 research study published in the Journal Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness showed that use of sunscreen doesn't affect thermoregulation—in fact, it may actually enhance overall body cooling. This data, while preliminary, should convince those who believe sunscreen will compromise their performance to start protecting their skin.

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Managing Your Risk

Because of training and racing, many athletes are unable to avoid the sun during certain times of the day. While it's best to avoid the peak sun hours between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., many competitions take place during this time. In order to adequately acclimatize to hot weather, an athlete must train intensely during these hot parts of the day, making use of sunscreen all the more important.

The bottom line is that we all need to do the best we can to reduce our risk while maximizing our performance. The most important thing to understand is that sunscreen doesn't hurt performance, it can actually improve your performance by protecting against burns and keeping you cooler in the heat.

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