I have been a runner for almost 25 years.  While I like to think that I am still the same athlete that I was back in my competitive college days, a lot of things have changed since then.  I run about half as many miles as I used to, my pace is slower, I spend more time running on a treadmill than I ever imagined I would.  And I really focus on sun protection when I do have a chance to run outside.  (This never even crossed my mind in my younger days.)

1 in 5 Develop Skin Cancer

As a dermatologist, it is my job to counsel my patients about sun protection.  It is also my personal choice to protect myself and my family from the harmful rays of the sun.  Why is it such a big deal?  Skin cancer is the most common cancer in the US.  I makes up half of all cancers in humans.  Each year, there are more new cases of skin cancer than the combined incidence of cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, and colon.  According to the American Academy of Dermatology, 1 in 5 people will develop a skin cancer in their lifetime.  This estimate sounds about right to me, as roughly 1 out of every 5 patients that I see daily has a skin cancer on their routine skin check.

Live Life while Protecting Your Skin

In addition to discussing and encouraging sun protection with patients, I remind them that it is okay to “live life”.

  • Golfing
  • Fishing
  • Swimming
  • Spending time at the lake
  • Going on beach vacations
  • Running
  • Walking outside daily

These are all wonderful, important things.  However, sun protection should be a priority for each person and their family.  Parents must teach children sun-safe behavior.  Just ONE blistering sunburn in childhood DOUBLES lifetime melanoma risk.

As a runner, what do I do to protect myself when I run outside?  One of the simplest things for me is avoiding the most intense hours of sun exposure, which is from 10am to 4pm daily.  This one is easy for me because on weekdays, if I run outside, it is going to be before the sun is up.  On weekends, I still try to go as early as possible just to avoid the heat, but usually not until 8 or 9am.  If the sun is up, I spend extra time to prepare myself before I head outside.

Doctor’s Advice 1, 2, 3

ALWAYS Wear a Hat

First, I always wear a hat.  I have a full head of hair, which helps protect my scalp.  However, chronic sun damage along the part line of hair or along the hairline adds up over time.  I always check the scalp on my patients because I regularly find skin cancer hiding in the hair.  Men with hair loss or shaved heads most often have trouble with skin cancer on the scalp, but it can happen to anyone.  I try to wear a hat outside even when not running, and I make sure my kids do as well.  Hats with a 4-inch brim are preferred to help cover the ears, but any hat is better than none.

SPF Clothing

Second, I try to find running clothing that has built-in SPF.  These days, many athletic wear companies have tried to incorporate this into their gear.  Shirts known as “rash guards” are SPF shirts, which protect skin from the sun.  Beyond shirts, SPF arm sleeves, pants, gloves, and more can be found online if desired.  Clothing makes it easy, as sunscreen does not need to be applied or reapplied to those areas covered by SPF clothing.

Lather Up with Sunscreen

Lastly, I always lather up with sunscreen on exposed areas of skin before I head outside.  I regularly get asked what the “best” sunscreen is over the counter.  Sunscreen is a personal feel, and I often give patients many samples to try because it is easier to wear sunscreen if it feels good on the skin.  There are a wide variety of sunscreens available, but they can be simply broken down into two main categories.  There are chemical sunscreens, which often have active ingredients that are hard to pronounce such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate, and octocrylene.  Then there are mineral sunscreens that have either zinc or titanium in them.  I prefer the mineral-based sunscreens for a few reasons.  Mineral sunscreens are better tolerated on sensitive skin, they seem to protect better, and they do not “sweat off” when running.  Examples of my favorites are Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Dry Touch SPF 50 or Aveeno Positively Mineral Sensitive Skin SPF 50.  However, I have runner friends that prefer chemical sunscreens such as Neutrogena Sport Face SPF 70+.  I recommend trying several types to find the perfect fit.  Any sunscreen is better than NO sunscreen.

Let the Race Begin

This weekend I am running the Goodlife Halfsy.  I am excited to run and feel good while doing it.  While I am not quite as prepared athletically as I would like to be, I know I’ll be prepared from a sun-protection standpoint.  I will always continue to do the activities outside that I enjoy but while taking the proper precautions while doing so.

Gina L Weir, MD