Burn-proof your summer workout by learning the truth about base tans, SPF, and the best gear for outdoor exerciseBy: Hollis Templeton
It’s easy to spoil the disease-fighting, mood-boosting benefits of outdoor exercise by falling victim to common misconceptions about sun protection. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, five or more sunburns (over the course of a lifetime, not a single summer) double your risk of melanoma, the most serious form of skin cancer. Shield yourself from damaging rays during summer walks, runs, rides, and water workouts by learning the right way to cover up from head to toe.
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You hit the pavement with pasty white skin on the hottest, sunniest day of the year and feel more than muscle burn by the time you wrap up. To prevent blistering sunburns, you hit the tanning bed and gradually build up a base.
The Truth: Tanning does very little to shield you from sunburn. A suntan generated by ultraviolet light provides a sun protection factor (SPF) of 2 to 3 for people with light to medium skin tones, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. Imagine buying a bottle of sunscreen labeled SPF 2!
Base tans also don't protect against sun damage, which happens at the cellular level, says Vilma Cokkinides, PhD, a cancer prevention epidemiologist with the American Cancer Society. Sun exposure causes changes in skin cells' DNA, and these genetic mutations can turn into cancer over time, she explains.
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Knowing that the sun is hottest between 10 AM and 4 PM, you typically plan outdoor workouts during non-peak hours—and skip sunscreen before heading out the door.
The Truth: While UVB rays hit the United States between peak hours from April to October, UVA rays are present anytime it’s light outside—even in the early morning and late afternoon, during the winter, and on cloudy days. “What outdoor exercisers don’t realize is that UVA rays penetrate deeply into the skin and contribute to the development of skin cancer and to damaged skin,” says Maral Skelsey, MD, director of the Dermatologic Surgery Center in Washington, DC, and a fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.
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The SPF numbers on bottles of sunscreen seem to climb higher every summer. When you pick up a bottle of SPF 50 or 70, you feel pretty confident that you’re walking out of the drugstore with the most powerful sun-protection product on the market.
The Truth: The bump in protection offered by higher SPFs is minimal. For example, SPF 15 sunblock screens 93 percent of the sun’s UVB rays, while SPF 30 protects against 97 percent and SPF 50 against 98 percent, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Seeing “broad spectrum” or “multi-spectrum” on a bottle of sunscreen is more important than a high SPF number, says Cokkinides. These words indicate that the product provides protection against both UVA and UVB rays, which damage the skin in different ways. UVB rays are mostly responsible for sunburn, and SPF generally refers to the amount of protection that a product offers against this type of radiation. UVA rays, which have longer wavelengths, penetrate the skin more deeply and contribute to wrinkles and skin cancers.
For light outdoor exercise, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a broad-spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher. For longer duration outdoor workouts (including those where you’ll be sweating heavily or hitting the pool), opt for a broad-spectrum, water-resistant product with an SPF of at least 30. Apply 1 ounce—enough to fill a shot glass—of sunscreen to your entire body (don’t forget spots like your ears, lips, hands, and exposed parts of your scalp) 30 minutes prior to stepping outside and reapply at least every two hours.
You slathered on water-resistant sunscreen before hitting the pool, but after a day of dipping in and out of the water, your back’s as red as the lifeguard’s swim trunks—and you’re ready to drown that useless bottle of lotion.
The Truth: Sunscreen isn’t waterproof. “Water-resistant means a dip in the water won’t wash it off right away,” says Cokkinides. “It’ll stay on your skin longer than regular sunscreen, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the whole day.” Each time you take a plunge in the water—and towel off after—water-resistant sunscreen loses its effect. Reapply after swimming, sweating, or towel-drying.
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You hate that sunscreen makes your face feel greasy, so you slap on a baseball cap before a long run.
The Truth: A hat is good for blocking the rays that come from directly overhead, but it doesn’t protect your face from the rays that bounce up from the ground. “Many people don’t recognize that they are at risk for greater levels of damage when near the water, sand, and snow because of increased reflection,” notes Skelsey.
In addition to applying sunscreen to your face, don’t forget a pair of shades. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends UV-blocking large-framed sunglasses to protect your eyelids and the delicate skin around your eyes, which are common sites for wrinkles and skin cancers. Shielding your peepers from the sun can also fend off cataracts later in life.
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You know better than to wear a black long-sleeved T-shirt on a run in the middle of summer—you’d be dripping in sweat by mile two. You opt for a lightweight white tee or tank instead.
The Truth: Dark colors absorb heat and make you feel hotter, but they offer more protection from damaging rays than light colors do. Loose-fitting clothing in shades like deep blue and black, and bright colors, like orange and red, offer more protection than white or pastel clothing, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation.
Fabric matters, too. “Light can’t penetrate tightly woven clothes, so they protect against the sun,” says Skelsey. “A thin white T-shirt—especially when wet—is not.” In short, if you can see light through a fabric, UV rays can get through it.
When buying summer workout clothes, look for items with a UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) of 50 of higher, advises Skelsey. A shirt labeled UPF 50, for example, means that only 1/50th of the sun’s UV light can reach the skin. “You can wash protection into your regular clothes using a product like SunGuard,” says Skelsey.
It may be painful to buy long-sleeved shirts and pants after Memorial Day, but they do offer better protection than pairing skimpier workout duds with sun block. “Sunscreen is not fully protective. It does not block out all of the rays the way protective clothing does,” says Skelsey. “Its effects diminish after application, and many people simply don’t apply enough.”Cool Workout Gear for Hot Summer Days
Dark skin may make you less susceptible to sunburn. It’s science, after all. The darker your skin, the higher its concentration of melanin, a skin pigment that acts a bit like sunscreen.
The Truth: Nobody’s immune to sun damage. “Even if you don’t burn easily, you’re still receiving radiation,” says Cokkinides. “Know and understand your skin type and choose the appropriate protection for it.” If you’re confused, ask your doctor.
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In recent years, you’ve been bombarded with information about the health-boosting benefits of vitamin D, from its ability to help you burn fat to its role in keeping bones strong. So, you’ve set your sights on soaking up as much of the sunshine vitamin as possible.
The Truth: “Sun is neither a safe nor an efficient way to boost vitamin D,” says Skelsey. “Most people who live in North America cannot get enough vitamin D with sun exposure alone. It’s much safer, efficient, and predictable to maintain healthy levels of vitamin D through diet and vitamin supplements.” (Search: What foods are high in vitamin D?)
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