As a dermatologist in Boise, I am constantly telling my patients, friends, and family members to use good sun protection and wear sunscreen. Sun protection can be a particular challenge when enjoying many of Idaho’s numerous outdoor activities. While many people may put on sunscreen prior to going outside, sweating causes sunscreen to rapidly lose its effect. In fact, no sunscreen is rated as lasting longer than 80 minutes when sweating or swimming is involved. So unless you are frequently reapplying sunscreen, sunburns are inevitable without careful planning.
I understand firsthand the challenges of protecting your skin while exercising. This past summer, I trained for Lotoja, the longest single day cycling race in the country. The race starts in Logan, UT and finishes 202 miles later in Jackson, WY. This incredibly long race is not only physically and mentally demanding, but is a nightmare for a dermatologist trying to protect himself from the harmful effects of ultraviolet light. Since I would be doing this as a race, stopping to reapply sunscreen wouldn’t exactly be realistic either.
I am proud to say that even with all of my long rides, including Lotoja, I didn’t once get a sunburn! So how did I do this? Well it certainly wasn’t because I got a good “base tan”. Unfortunately too many people think of this as a good way to protect themselves from sunburns. While it’s true that gradually building up a tan may keep you from getting a sunburn, this is not a safe strategy. Along with that tan comes thousands of mutations in your skin cells. These mutations can eventually lead to skin cancers including basal cell carcinoma, squamous cell carcinoma, and melanoma – the most dangerous and potentially deadly form of skin cancer. I avoided getting a sunburn the smart way with careful planning and lots of sunscreen.
In preparation for Lotoja, I spent hundreds of hours on my bike. For most of my rides, I met with my cycling buddies 4-5 times a week at 5AM. Riding this early was difficult, but it did have some advantages including the fact that I rarely had to worry about sun protection. My Saturday rides were much longer, typically lasting 5-7 hours, so I had plenty of practice protecting my skin while working out.
My most important strategy was to cover up as much as possible. This was easy when the temperature was low in the morning, but became more difficult as the day progressed. I started almost all my rides with removable arm sleeves to protect my skin as long as possible before I started to overheat.
My next layer of protection was a healthy dose of sunscreen. The first thing I did when I woke up before my long Saturday rides was to apply a very thick layer of sunscreen to all my sun exposed areas. Early application is important as sunscreen needs time to absorb into the skin to achieve maximum protection. My sunscreen of choice was Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry Touch SPF 55. For my longest Saturday rides, I even brought some along to reapply partway through my ride as I knew most of its protection had been lost due to my endless sweating.
My final defense against sunburn was a supplement called Heliocare. This pill is available over the counter and provides a low level of sun protection. It is not intended to replace sunscreen, but does provide another layer of protection. With these combined strategies, I was able to keep my skin safe and protected all summer long.
Finishing Lotoja was certainly one of my biggest physical accomplishments. Not everything went according to plan during my race, but at least I didn’t have a sunburn at the end. Maintaining adequate sun protection while exercising is definitely tough, but is possible with careful planning. To help you keep yourself safe and prevent skin cancer during your outdoor activities, here’s a summary of my recommendations:
At Treasure Valley Dermatology, in Boise, Idaho we take sun protection seriously. Every day we see how skin cancer affects people’s lives. If you have any spots you are worried about please come in and see us right away, it may save your life. If you are like me and spend a lot of time in the sun, make sure you come in for a skin cancer screening. We find skin cancers ever day our patients hadn’t even noticed, so don’t assume you are skin cancer free without being examined by a board certified dermatologist.
When you are out driving, keep an eye out for me on my bike. I’m usually wearing some bright neon yellow to stay visible and avoid getting hit by cars. I hope you found this article interesting and helpful, and I look forward to seeing you at our office or somewhere in Idaho’s great outdoors.
Written by Ryan Harris MD