With summer upon us, many triathletes have shed their knee warmers, are basking in the sunshine—and increasing their risk of skin cancer.
Endurance athletes are at higher risk for non-melanoma skin cancers, like basal and squamous skin carcinomas, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. They also record more risk factors for melanoma, likely due to excessive UV exposure while training and racing outdoors.
Despite this increased risk, many aren’t protecting their skin as much as they should. A new Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) study, published in the May 2015 issue of Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, found only 14 percent of men and 30 percent of women in the United States regularly use sunscreen; 40 percent of males and 27 percent of females report never using sunscreen at all.
Those who religiously slather on the sunblock aren’t completely protected, either: on the heels of the CDC study, the Environmental Working Group released troubling new information in its sunscreen guide. An analysis of more than 1,700 sunscreens, lip balms and moisturizers containing SPF revealed over 80 percent contain “inferior sun protection.” Many of these ineffective products also contain “worrisome ingredients,” which EWG says may increase sun sensitivity instead of protecting users from skin damage.
In addition to preventing sunburn and skin cancer, sun safety is an important part of effective triathlon training and racing—taking steps to manage sun exposure may reduce the incidence of fatigue and dehydration and increase performance. Experts suggest utilizing a multi-pronged approach to sun safety.
Be UV Wise.
To stay protected during training and racing efforts year-round, experts suggest limiting time outdoors to early morning or late evening, when the sun’s rays are less intense. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation levels, which cause sunburn, can still harm you even if it isn’t sunny or hot outside. There’s no correlation between UV levels and temperature, so the sun’s rays can singe you during both winter and summer.
Free smartphone tools, like the Environmental Protection Agency’s SunWise UV Index app, can provide detailed predictions on what times of day are most dangerous to be outside, based on sunlight angle, forecasted cloud cover, elevation and ozone throughout the day.
For sessions lasting longer than one hour, it is good to cover as much skin as comfortably possible with clothing containing a high UPF (Ultraviolet Protective Factor).
Some triathlon manufacturers, like Zoot (pictured) upgrade their UPF fabrics with cooling properties like Xylitol yarn and technology to pull sweat away from the skin, increasing comfort on hot days.
Add the right accessories.
You don’t have to upgrade your entire wardrobe for sun protection. Even standard cycling jerseys offer skin a little bit of protection from the sun. Instead of throwing out all of your kits, add selective accessories to cover the remaining exposed skin, such as sun sleeves from Castelli (pictured) or hats made from UPF fabrics.
Swim indoors when possible. Water reflects UV rays, increasing their intensity (and their propensity for damage). For those who swim outside, choose suits made from UPF-containing materials (such as TYR’s, pictured) and tinted swim goggles with UV protection to safeguard the skin around your eyes.
Choose sunscreen wisely.
Several popular sunscreen brands, including Banana Boat, Coppertone and Neutrogena were listed in the EWG’s “Hall of Shame” for being ineffective at sun protection and/or containing potentially harmful ingredients, such as Oxybenzone, which can disrupt the hormone system, or vitamin A, which may heighten sun sensitivity. Some sunscreen companies boast high SPF levels like SPF 70 or SPF 100+, even though the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says there’s only notable protection up to SPF 50.
Instead of picking a sunscreen based solely on SPF, it’s better to choose one with “broad spectrum” protection (meaning it blocks both UVA and UVB), is designed to provide long-lasting protection, and utilizes mineral sun protection ingredients instead of chemical. The EWG provides a comprehensive database of the safest and most effective beach and sport sunscreens for consumers to cross-check their products.
Slather often and well.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, most people who use sunscreen only apply 25 to 50 percent of recommended amount. At least one ounce of sunscreen—enough to fill a shot glass—should be applied 15 minutes before going outdoors, and should be re-applied at least every 2 hours. Cover all skin—don’t forget oft-missed spots like the lower back or behind the ears—and use a lip balm with SPF.
Shield the eyes.
UV exposure can contribute to various eye disorders such as cataracts, cancerous eyelid lesions and macular degeneration; the fragile skin surrounding the eye is also sensitive to sun damage and cancer. For maximum protection of eyes and the surrounding skin, choose a pair of UV protective sunglasses with large lenses that wrap around the side of the face.
Check your skin.
Self-examination is a key element in catching skin cancer early, when it is most treatable. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends a monthly head-to-toe evaluation of the skin for new or changing lesions.
To aid in this process, researchers at the University of Michigan developed a free app called the UM SkinApp to map freckles and spots on the body to alert users to new lesions. It also stores baseline photos taken of moles to allow users to compare and analyze for changes from month to month.