Skin Cancer Risks for Athletes & Tips for Prevention

May 29, 2019

Runner experiencing skin cancer risks for athletes

In this blog for skin cancer awareness month, we will take a closer look at a group of people who frequently endure prolonged sun exposure – athletes. Sun exposure is the leading risk factor and contributor to skin cancer, so by protecting your skin, you can reduce your risk. Dr. Amy McClung of U.S. Dermatology Partners Brodie Lane in Austin, TX., is a runner. Spending hours outdoors in the hot Texas sun means she knows the importance of proper sunscreen application for athletes. We asked Dr. McClung to tackle some of the frequently asked questions we hear about skin cancer risks for athletes. We’ve compiled her answers below.

What are Some Common Bad Habits with Athletes & Sun Protection?

We can all probably do better at protecting our skin from sun exposure, but athletes who are often exposed to sunlight for prolonged periods can be at a significantly higher risk for skin cancer. Below, we’ve outlined some of the bad sun protection habits of many athletes and Dr. McClung’s recommendations to counter those bad habits.

  • Bad Habit #1 – Forgetting sunscreen altogether – Many athletes get a one-track mind and forget their sun protection. Apply daily and reapply regularly.
  • Bad Habit #2 – Not using enough sunscreen – Many athletes only use a small amount of protective sunscreen. But actually, athletes need to be using about a shot glass full of sunscreen every few hours. Endurance athletes often forget to reapply sunscreen making them more susceptible to skin cancer.
  • Bad Habit #3 – Getting a base tan – Base tans are not a thing. Getting a tan now will not protect you from sunburn and damage later.
  • Bad Habit #4 – Not covering up – Wear protective clothing. Being out in the sun for hours can be a hot and sweaty situation. However, resist the urge to disrobe. Running shirtless or in sports bras may keep you feeling cool, but you’re exposing sensitive skin to UV rays.
  • Bad Habit #5 – Skipping some of the trouble areas – Don’t forget to apply sunscreen to your face, back of the hands, and lips. These often-overlooked areas receive the bulk of sun exposure.
  • Bad Habit #6 – Staying out during peak hours – Avoid sun exposure from 10 am to 4 pm when the sun’s UV rays are the most intense. Get up a little earlier for your run or save your swim for after work. If you are exercising during these peak sun exposure times, don’t skimp on your sunscreen, and take plenty of breaks in the shade.
  • Bad Habit #7 – Using the wrong sunscreen – Look for broad-spectrum sunscreens with a sun protection factor over 30 that offers protection for both UVA and UVB rays and are 80-minute water resistant.
  • Bad Habit #8 – Forgetting to check the weather – Check today’s rating on the UV Index Scale. Published daily by the National Weather Service, this rating tells you how quickly the average person’s skin will start to burn during sun exposure. The scale starts with 0-2 ratings that mean burning typically begins in about 60 minutes. Rankings go all the way up to 11 plus with burning beginning in less than 10 minutes.

Is Eye Protection Important?

Eye injuries are extremely common for athletes in every sport. But, most people think about traumatic damage caused by impact with players or equipment. However, the sun can just as easily damage the eyes. Radiation damage from the sun can lead to blindness, chronic migraine headaches, and possibly even contribute to eye cancer. Called intraocular melanoma, this is actually the most common type of eye cancer.

Like melanomas of the skin, intraocular melanomas occur when the melanocyte cells in the eye’s uvea or conjunctiva become damaged. According to the American Academy of Ophthalmology, certain factors increase a person’s risk of developing intraocular melanoma including prolonged exposure to sunlight or UV rays from tanning beds.  During prolonged sun exposure, make sure to wear goggles, sunglasses, and hats that can protect the eyes from damaging UV rays. This is especially important for those athletes who participate in water and snow sports. The reflected light off the water and snow can magnify sunlight and skin cancer risk.

What Other Factors Increase Skin Cancer Risks for Athletes?

Anyone of any age can be at risk for skin cancer. Dr. McClung says, “Like anyone else, athletes who play sports that involve prolonged time in the sun are increasing their risk for skin cancer. Additionally, those athletes who fall on the low end of the Fitzpatrick Skin Type Scale (fair skin, light hair, and blue or green eyes) are at the highest risk for all forms of skin cancer after prolonged sun exposure.” The Fitzpatrick Skin Type Scale is a tool used by dermatologists and medical professionals to help people understand their risk for skin cancers and other conditions. You can find out more about the Fitzpatrick Skin Type Scale in one of our blog posts from earlier this year.

Do Pain Medications Put Athletes at Greater Risk for Sunburn?

As an athlete, you are likely no stranger to pain. Many people who play sports regularly take nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs) that may increase the risk of sunburn for some people. According to Dr. McClung, “There are many medications that may increase photosensitivity. That means you are at an increased risk for sunburn, and your sunburn may be more painful, last longer, and even look redder.” If you’re taking any medications that cause sun sensitivity such as anti-inflammatory medications, antibiotics, or antihistamines (among others), make sure to take special care to protect your skin.

Do You Have Recommendations for Proper Sunscreen Application for Athletes?

Anyone who is going to be out in the sun for prolonged time periods should use a good SPF 30 or higher sunscreen, but some athletes are exposed to the sun for hours at a time, while exercising, and wearing inadequate clothing to protect the skin. This is a perfect storm of risk for sun damage. Below, we’ve outlined some specific guidelines for athletes who may be at the greatest risk for sun damage.

  • Swimmers & Surfers – swimming, surfing, or spending time on or in the water means you need to look for water-resistant sunscreens that offer broad-spectrum protection. Don’t forget to reapply regularly and take breaks in the shade whenever possible.
  • Endurance Athletes – there is a lot of stress attached to participating in triathlons, marathons, or other endurance sports; but that doesn’t mean you should skimp on your sun care routine. Take time to reapply every two hours, and don’t forget to use lip balms with SPF.
  • Soccer players – soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, rugby, tennis, and other sports that involve a lot of running mean you’re going to need a water-resistant sunscreen. Before you put on your protective gear, apply your SPF 30 or higher sunscreen. Many athletes put sunscreen on after their shin guards and other protective equipment that can shift, exposing skin to UVA/B rays.
  • Golfers – the most important tip for golfers is reapplication. 18 holes can take hours, and even if it’s early in the morning, you are still going to be exposed to the sun. Make sure you’re reapplying every few hours.

Visit a U.S. Dermatology Partners Location Near You

If you live in the Austin, TX area, Dr. McClung and the team at U.S. Dermatology Partners Brodie Lane would love to hear from you. Not in Austin? U.S. Dermatology Partners has locations across Texas and throughout the U.S. You can get started working with one of our dermatologists today by completing our simple online request form. We’re here to help you with skin cancer prevention, diagnosis, and treatment, and all of your skin care needs.

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