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The Biggest Mistake Runners Make When It Comes to Sun Protection

As our outdoor mileage increases in spring and summer, so too should our sun protection.

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According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), the majority of skin cancers (the most common type of cancer) are attributable to ultraviolet radiation from the sun. And people with melanoma or non-melanoma skin cancer history are more likely than people without a history of developing skin cancer again.

Olympic marathoner Deena Kastor has had melanoma three times and basal cell and squamous cell countless others. That’s why she is so vocal about the importance of runners protecting themselves from harmful UV radiation while training outdoors. She is the picture of diligence and self-care: Wearing hats and long-sleeved shirts even in the summer, applying sunscreen daily, and getting quarterly check-ups with her dermatologist.

That’s how her most recent malignancy was detected, which was surgically removed in December of 2019. “I feel grateful for early detection, but that’s why I try to encourage people to [get checked] once a year because if something does emerge, a good eye of a dermatologist can get it out immediately and you don’t have to have further complications. As with any cancer, early detection is critical.”

Every runner should have an awareness of their body and be able to notice if new moles or discolorations arrive. “Any abnormal changes to your skin could be a sign of skin cancer,” says clinical research coordinator Carly Benford. “The best way to check would be to consult with a dermatologist to perform an annual skin examination.”

From Kastor’s experience, runners have a tendency to be too relaxed when it comes to sun protection. The following are some common misconceptions that might be stopping you from lathering up.

Sun Protection Myths

Short sun exposure won’t hurt.

Benford, a runner herself, says that it’s common for athletes to forgo sunscreen.  “Many runners don’t expect to be outside for very long and fail to apply sunscreen or wear clothing and accessories that protect them from the sun,” she says. But if you live somewhere with a high UV index, like Florida, 20 minutes outside can easily cause a sunburn, says Dr. Heather Woolery-Lloyd, a board-certified dermatologist. She adds: “It depends on the time of day.” Being outside for 10 or 20 minutes early in the morning or the evening is not as big of a concern as during peak sun hours.

Dark skin doesn’t need sun protection.

All runners should be wearing sunscreen, even if they have darker skin tones that are less prone to sunburn. “Although skin cancer is less common in people of color, it still happens,” says Dr. Woolery-Lloyd. According to the AAD, skin cancer in darker skin tones are often diagnosed at later stages when it is harder to treat.

Putting sunscreen on your arms, legs, and face are all you need.

“Whether we’re driving in the car or we’re out for a run, our hands are at an angle where they can get a lot of sun exposure,” says Kastor. Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to your hands, wear a lip balm with SPF protection (and no moisturizing oils or butters), and sunglasses with UV protection to protect your eyes. Those three areas are commonly forgotten and prone to damage.

You only need to wear sunscreen in the summer.

Even though you’re likely more covered up in the winter, you should still apply sunscreen to areas where your skin is exposed. Snow and even some light cloud cover can intensify UV radiation.

Shopping for Sunscreen

Look for sunscreen that protects against UVA and UVB rays, often termed ‘broad spectrum’ with at least 30 SPF,” says Benford.

Kastor recommends mineral-based (zinc oxide or titanium oxide) options because they are chemically safe, better for the environment, and provide a physical barrier from the sun. That barrier helps to reflect rays away from your body (which is why mineral sunscreens will always, and should, leave a white residue on your skin).

Check out this sunscreen round-up of brands perfect for runners, including Kastor’s favorites. 

Plan Your Run

Protecting yourself from the sun takes a little bit of planning. Sunscreen should be applied at least 20 minutes before you head out to make sure it has had time to bind to your skin.

As for when you run: “Try to plan your runs during hours where the sun is less intense, such as early mornings or late afternoons or evenings,” says Benford. It can also be helpful to find routes that are in shady areas.

You can also protect yourself by giving your outfit a little bit of thought. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, clothing is the most effective form of sun protection. Some clothing manufacturers will include the UPF rating, which is clothing’s equivalent of SPF. If no UPF rating is available, then try to pick clothes that cover more skin, are dark or brightly colored, loose fitting, and more densely woven. Dr. Woolery-Lloyd adds that clothing has the added benefit that you don’t need to reapply and it covers all areas evenly. 

I think that taking care of your skin is one of the most important things you can do,” says Kastor. “Sleeping, eating well, and taking care of your skin. It is your largest organ, and does take such a big brunt of weather, whether it’s running in a snowstorm or being out with a great amount of sun exposure.”