Why Runners Need Sunscreen

Why Runners Need Sunscreen

Lisa Jhung
Writer and Author of Running That Doesn't Suck: How To Love Running (Even If You Think You Hate It)
August 15, 2023

We all know the sun beats down harmful rays. Ultraviolet A (UVA) rays are associated with skin aging, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation, while Ultraviolet B (UVB) rays are associated with skin burning. Both types contribute to damaging the DNA in skin cells, which can lead to cancers—basal cell carcinomas, squamous cell carcinomas, and melanomas.

The sun also damages the dermis, the deeper layers of skin, to cause visible effects often referred to as “photoaging. ”Rays penetrate the outer layers to reach the inner layers, and that’s what causes brown sunspots, sun-induced wrinkles, uneven skin tone, and other issues. Since the dermis is beneath the surface, we often don’t notice the damage until later—even years later.

With all this in mind, why do most runners skip sunscreen?

A 2022 study published in Sports, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, looked to answer that very question. The study, titled, “Sun Protective Behaviors and Attitudes of Runners,” surveyed almost 700 runners to measure how often they engaged in the following seven “sun-protective behaviors”:

  • Sunscreen use on the face or body
  • Wearing a hat
  • Wearing sunglasses
  • Wearing long sleeves
  • Running in shade
  • Avoidance of midday running

While between 54% and 84% reported engaging in at least one of these behaviors “sometimes,” only 7% to 45% reported “frequent use.”

The reasons given for not using sunscreen regularly were mostly “forgetfulness,” with some citing “discomfort.”

A small percentage cited that they wanted to maintain a tan, or optimize their exposure to vitamin D.

If any of these reasons sound familiar, it’s time to change your behavior.

Here’s how:

  • Make applying sunscreen and wearing sun-protective items (hat, sunglasses) part of your routine in getting ready for a run. Consider putting on sunscreen before putting on your socks or lacing up your shoes so that you don’t forget.
  • Use a sunscreen that goes on light and doesn’t feel sticky. That will eliminate the excuse of “discomfort.” 
  • The whole tanning thing…Your skin still tans through sunscreen, while the sunscreen protects you from the harmful UV rays.  
  • About vitamin D. While the nutrient is important in helping your body absorb calcium and ward off osteoporosis (the latter of which running also helps achieve), you likely get enough of it through food and through your sunscreen. According to Harvard Health, while sunscreen blocks UVB light and therefore lowers vitamin D levels, “very few people put on enough sunscreen to block all UBV light.”   

And here are a couple more things runners should know: Sweat increases the risk of sun damage, so finding a sunscreen that is meant for athletes is important. Also, running midday during summer months is far from the only time you need to wear sunscreen. The sun can damage your skin in the winter, and it can damage your skin on a cloudy day. In fact, according to a report in Medical News Today, 90% of the sun’s rays break through a cloudy sky.

Back to that study about the behaviors of 700 runners. It surmised that “Runners appear to recognize the importance of sun protection and the potential consequences of not using it, but report forgetfulness and discomfort as the biggest barriers to consistent use.”

Let’s all vow to not fall into either camp—or come up with any other excuses—and protect ourselves from both skin cancer and photoaging.

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