Sun Protection for Athletes by Roslyn McGinty

If you are contemplating a warm weather training camp don’t forget the importance of sun protection.


Just because the sun is hiding behind the clouds don’t forget the importance of sun protection.

Athletes who spend many hours outdoors with little to no protection from clothing are very susceptible to the harmful rays of the sun and overexposure to ultraviolet (UV) light is the strongest risk factor for many skin malignancies. UV light comes from the sun, as well as from artificial tanning sunbeds and sunlamps. Whilst non-melanoma skin cancer is not always preventable, you can reduce your chance of developing it by avoiding overexposure to UV light.

Skin malignancies include basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma and malignant melanoma. Non-melanoma skin cancer most often develops on areas of skin regularly exposed to the sun, such as the face, ears, hands, shoulders, upper chest and back. Sunburn increases your risk of skin cancer. Sunburn does not just happen on holiday. You can burn in the UK, even when it’s cloudy.

The sun can be strong enough to cause sunburn in the UK from mid-March until mid-October even if it is a cold and cloudy day. If the UV index is 3 or above you need to think about protecting your skin. Clouds do block some of the UV rays but over 90% can still penetrate through light cloud and cause sun damage.

Lots of weather apps also predict the UV index. The UV index tells us how strong the sun’s UV rays are and when we might be at risk of burning. Higher values = greater the risk of sunburn. The UV index only needs to be 3 or more and the sun is strong enough to cause damage for some skin types so care should be taken to protect the skin, especially if you burn easily.

The sun is strongest between 11 am and 3 pmand more care should always be taken at this time. But wherever you are in the world the shadow rule is a handy way of predicting how strong the UV rays are – if your shadow is shorter than you the UV rays are strong and you are more likely to burn so extra care needs to be taken.

Anyone can get sunburnt or develop skin cancer, but some people are at a higher risk. You should take more care in the sun if you have one or more of the following:

* Getting sunburnt just once every two

years can triple your risk of melanoma skin cancer, compared to never being burnt.

* skin that burns easily

* light or fair coloured skin, hair, or light coloured eyes

* lots of moles or freckles and the presence of atypical/dysplastic naevi including irregular moles that

are >5mm diameter with varying pigmentation

* a history of sunburn and significant sun exposure in childhood is the single most important lifestyle risk factor. Experience of blistering sunburn during childhood/young adulthood doubles the chance of developing melanoma later in life. The higher the number of sunburns, the greater the risk.

* a personal or family history of skin cancer or family history of melanoma.

* a history of use of sunbeds. The risk is highest for patients who have used a sunbed aged under 35 but use at any age will increase the risk due to the increased exposure to UV light.

* Immunosuppression for any reason e.g. transplant patient, HIV.

The more easily you get sunburnt, the more careful you need to be. If your skin has gone red, pink, itchy or tender in the sun, that’s sunburn. Although darkly pigmented skin burns less easily and has a lower risk of skin cancer it can still burn. The skin might feel itchy or tender rather than changing colour. Be aware that

people of all skin tones get skin cancer.

The statistics are alarming – the incidence of malignant melanoma in Britain has risen faster than any other common cancer. Over the last decade, the number of people diagnosed with melanoma in the UK has increased by almost half but importantly, with correct care, the incidence is often preventable.

Melanoma is the 5th most common cancer in the UK.

Which Sunscreen?

  • Ensure that sun protection lotion has both UVA (5*) and UVB cover which is a minimum of Factor 30 • Make sure the sunscreen is not past its expiry date. Most sunscreens have a shelf life of 2 to 3 years.
  • Do not spend any longer in the sun than you would without sunscreen.
  • Still consider reapplying once a day sunscreen


Top 10 sun protection tips for athletes

1) Don’t rely on sunscreen alone – wherever possible consider using a hat and sleeved clothing/tri-suits.

2) Always use sun protection lotion when outside between the hours of 11am – 3pm, April-October in the UK, even on cloudy days and if you have a choice try and stay in the shade during the hottest part of the day.

3) Know your skin type – type 1 skin is much more likely to burn than type 6, with “sunburn” increasing the risk of sun damage and subsequently skin cancer.

4) Don’t spend longer in the sun than you would without sunscreen. Know your burn time – the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) gives an indication of skin cover. Burn time (with sun protection lotion) = burn time (without sun lotion) x SPF

5) Consider using waterproof or ‘sport friendly’ sun lotion

7) Take extra care when exercising around water or snow as the reflection results in faster burn times.

8) Get to know your moles; monitor with regular digital photos if concerned.

9) Know your family history; malignant melanoma has a strong genetic component.

10) See a GP if you have any skin abnormality, such as a lump, ulcer, lesion or skin discolouration that has not healed after 4 weeks.While it’s unlikely to be skin cancer, it’s best to get it checked as an early diagnosis can increase your chance of successful treatment. Not all skin cancers are pigmented moles.


In the UK almost 9 in 10 cases of melanoma skin cancer could be prevented by staying safe in the sun and avoiding sun beds.

86% of malignant melanoma cases reported in 2015 in the UK were preventable according to Cancer Research UK and 86% of Melanoma skin cancer cases in the UK in 2015 were caused by overexposure to ultraviolet radiation,

Skin cancer becomes more common with age.

There is no safe or healthy way to get a tan. A tan does not protect your skin from the suns harmful effects. If you are thinking of topping up your tan on a sun bed – don’t! According to the Skin Cancer Foundation more people develop skin cancer because of indoor tanning than develop lung cancer because of smoking so reach for the bottle of fake tan instead!

CancerResearchUK.org – https://www.cancerresearchuk.org/about-cancer/melanoma

Skin Cancer Foundation – https://www.skincancer.org

Royal Marsden NHS Trust – https://www.royalmarsden.nhs.uk

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