Written by: Roy Stevenson
We all love to exercise outdoors when the sun is shining. Exercise enhances oxygen flow to the skin, flushes out impurities from its surface, and promotes production of oil, your skin’s natural moisturizer. For good health we need natural sunlight to prevent depression in the winter and to activate vitamin D, which increases bone density. Some research even shows that sunlight has a protective effect against hypertension and some autoimmune diseases. However, over-exercising, common among outdoor fitness buffs, may suppress your immune system, making you more prone to the damaging effects of the sun.
Melanin: Skin Damage Warning
The sun’s ultraviolet rays cause more skin damage than any other factor, in a myriad of ways. A brown pigment named melanin, found in the epidermis, is produced when skin is exposed to sunlight— giving us a tan. Melanin protects the skin by absorbing, reflecting and scattering ultraviolet radiation before it penetrates the dermis, or underlying skin. However, melanin can’t prevent all the negative effects of the sun, and often indicates damage. Dry Skin and Photoaging
The sun’s heat dries out unprotected skin and depletes the skin’s supply of natural lubricating oils, causing dry skin. It’s important to stay hydrated, because skin loses its turgor (elasticity) in people with severe dehydration. Dry skin looks flaky and prematurely wrinkled, even in younger people. Photoaging is a term dermatologists use to describe long-term changes in the skin’s collagen and elastic proteins located deep in the skin layer called the dermis, that give skin its strength and elasticity.
Other skin cell damage from excess UV rays includes actinic keratosis, a possible warning symptom of cancer, cell membrane damage, reduced immune system reactions, and DNA and RNA disturbances leading to reduced protein synthesis, extreme inflammatory reactions, and basal, squamous, and melanoma cancers— sounds scary doesn’t it?!
Signs & Symptoms of Skin Damage
If you have any of the following symptoms, tell your doctor.
• Any change on the skin, especially in the size or color of a mole or other darkly-pigmented growth or spot, or a new growth.
• Scaling, oozing, bleeding or change in the appearance of a bump or nodule.
• Spread of pigmentation beyond its border, such as dark coloring that spreads past the edge of a mole.
• A change in sensation, itchiness, tenderness or pain.
How to Protect Yourself from Sun Damage
Clearly, avoiding sunburn is a great way to maintain healthy skin. You should avoid exercising (and seek shade) between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., when the sun’s rays are strongest. Unfortunately, these times are when most outdoor enthusiasts and sportsmen tend to participate in their activities. If you spend a lot of time near water and sand, you’ll also need to use extra caution because these surfaces reflect the damaging rays of the sun.
Clothing: Creating a Barrier
When doing your outdoor thing on hot, sunny days, lightweight, light-colored clothing combined with plenty of sunscreen on both exposed and unexposed skin is the way to go. However, if overheating isn’t a concern, dark-colored, tightly-woven clothing is more effective at blocking UV rays than say, a white T-shirt, which allows UV rays to reach the skin. A typical cotton T-shirt only offers sun protection of about SPF 7— less when it’s sweat-saturated. Choose T-shirts that you cannot see through when held up to a light.
If you’re going to spend the entire day outside— or are just sensitive to the sun— get gear that offers built in UV protection. See sidebar listing of UV sun-protective clothing brands. You can also add SunGuard to your laundry— this colorless dye gives your clothes an SPF of 30 or more.
Wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face, ears and neck while working out, outdoors. A hat with a visor will not only shield your face, but will also keep your scalp— where cancers can develop more aggressively— safe from the sun. Lightweight baseball-style caps with mesh panels will absorb sweat and keep you cool; they’re comfortable for running, hiking, and the like. But if you choose a baseball cap, remember to protect your ears and neck with sunscreen. Follow these practices to protect your skin even on cloudy or overcast days, because UV rays travel through clouds.
Numerous companies sell high sun-protection clothing and hats, including Sun Soul, Solar Bar, Columbia, Solartex, Solumbra, Solar Eclipse, Sun Clothing, Sun-Togs, Coolibar, Patagonia, and others. The Skin Cancer Foundation sells T-shirts that block 97 percent of the sun’s UV rays.
Protect your eyes from cataracts and the skin around them from developing lines by wearing sunglasses. There are some solid, sporty sunglasses available that block 90 to 100 percent of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays. Polarized sunglasses may be more expensive, but the reduction in glare is worth every cent of the extra cost.
For outdoor athletes, the higher the SPF (sun protection factor) in your sunscreen, the better. This is because of the increased protection that higher SPF sunscreens provide, and also because most athletes don’t use nearly enough to begin with. You should apply a full ounce (about a shot glass full) every couple of hours, and more if you’ve been swimming or sweating, which is what outdoor exercise is all about!
A popular myth entertained by many sportsmen is that they think the higher the SPF rating, the longer they can stay out in the sun. That’s simply not true. While higher-numbered products (SPF-85, for example) do provide more protection, using sunscreen doesn’t prevent all the possible harmful effects of the sun. And most people don’t know that the SPF figure only indicates protection provided against UVB rays— not the invisible, ultraviolet-A rays that can also affect skin health and hasten the aging process. That’s why you need a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB). While UVA is up to 1,000 times more plentiful than UVB, UVB is about 1,000 times more potent than UVA in producing sunburn and redness.
To find a sunscreen that protects against both UVs, look for Parsol 1789, also called avobenzone or oxybenzone, anthranilates, zinc oxide, or titanium dioxide on the ingredients list. Dermatologists are calling a chemical named mexoryl the new superpower of sunscreen protection. With an SPF of 60 it provides much greater protection against UVA rays than anything else on the market. L’Oreal sunscreen uses this ingredient now in its sunscreen.
Even if not running, hiking, kayaking or cycling outdoors— just hanging out on the beach, for example— the more sunscreen you apply, the better. So slather it on thickly every couple of hours that you’re in the sun. That means a six-ounce bottle of sunscreen should last just a few applications— not all summer. And use sunscreen, even on hazy or overcast days. What SPF should you use? Each of us needs a different SPF, depending on whether, and to what degree, our skin burns or tans— but if dermatologists had their way, we’d all be wearing sunscreen with an SPF of 85! Sunscreen should be applied 15 to 30 minutes before going outdoors
Nutrition for Healthy Skin
Fortunately, the foods shown to be good for skin health are the foods that athletes should be eating to stay healthy. Eat a varied and nutritious diet, and it’s amazing what can happen to your skin. In one study, researchers from Monash University in Australia found people who ate the most fruits, vegetables and fish had the least amount of wrinkles.
So, if you want to follow a skin healthy diet, make sure you pack your diet full of these nutrients:
• Vitamins E and C. Studies find these vitamins can help protect your skin from the harmful effects of the sun. Vitamin C is a valuable nutrient in collagen synthesis, the protein that helps hold skin together and give it tone. Best food sources: vegetable oils, margarine, eggs, fish, whole-grain cereals and dried beans for vitamin E; citrus fruits, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers and leafy green vegetables for vitamin C.
• Essential fatty acids. Several studies show that the amount of poly- and monounsaturated fats, particularly omega-3 fatty acids, in your diet can minimize sun and aging damage to your skin. Best food sources: Coldwater fish, such as salmon, mackerel and tuna. For healthy mono fats, stick with olive oil and nuts.
• Tea, particularly green tea, is an excellent source of antioxidants called polyphenols. That may be why one Arizona study found that the more hot tea people drank (particularly tea with lemon), the less likely they were to develop squamous cell skin cancer.
• Vitamin A. One study found a strong connection between antioxidant vitamin A levels in the blood (an indicator of the amount in the diet) and skin dryness; the more vitamin A, the moister the skin. Best food sources: Orange, red and yellow fruits and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes and cantaloupe, and green leafy vegetables such as spinach and broccoli.
• Fluid intake. This last item is important for good skin and overall health, and is vital when exercising: be sure to stay hydrated with water and electrolyte-boosting sports drinks throughout your workout, as well as after. The amount of liquid you drink directly affects the health of your skin. One sign of dehydration is if you press on your skin with your finger and it doesn’t spring back. And remember, the same information about protecting your skin applies to non-exercisers doing things like gardening, having picnics, and other family activities.
As You Age: Skin Care for Different Ages
|Signs of Damage:||What to Use:|
|30s. Early signs of skin aging appear in your 30s, especially if you’ve spent a lot of time in the sun in your teens and 20s.||Antioxidants fight skin damage caused by environmental stress from cigarette smoking, excess alcohol, environmental toxins, stress, poor diet, and sleep deprivation.Look for topical antioxidants containing amino-peptides, green tea, coenzyme Q10, vitamin C and vitamin E.|
|40s. Damage that started in your 30s now becomes more pronounced. Skin cell repair is slower, and your skin collagen loses some of its elasticity.||Use hydrating creams that have retinol to improve skin regeneration.|
|50s. Dropping estrogen levels reduce your skin’s natural oil production, causing drier skin and loss of elasticity around eyes and neck.||Use exfoliating ingredients including alpha-hydroxy (AHA) or beta-hydroxy (BHA) acid cleansers or lotions.|
|60s. Aging signs become more pronounced with wrinkles, dry skin and sun spots.||Use hydrating lotions with Hyaluronic acid to help your skin hold more moisture.|
Protecting Yourself from the Sun. Robertson, John. M.D. Northwest Runner Magazine, August 1994
Fun in the Sun. Robertson, John. M.D. Northwest Runner Magazine, October 1990
Escaping Sun Damage. Scheinburg, Robert. MD. Fitness Runner Magazine, May/June 2000
Has Your Skin Had Too Much Summer? Healthy Living Magazine, Summer 2008. Multicare Health System Publication.
The Lasting Effects of Sunburn. Northwest Hospital & Medical Center Newsletter, July/August 2008.
Sunburn Chapter, Healthwise Handbook, Group Health Cooperative/Virginia Mason Hospital. Donald W. Kemper, Editor. 1997.
Take Care of Yourself, James F. Fries, MD., and Donald M. Vickery, MD. 4th Edition. 1990.
Skin Cancer Foundation www.skincancer.org
Roy Stevenson has a master’s degree in coaching and exercise physiology from Ohio University. He’s coached hundreds of serious and recreational runners and triathletes in the Seattle area. His articles on health, fitness, running, triathlon and sports training have been published in over forty regional, national and international health, fitness, sports, running and triathlon magazines in the U.S., U.K., South Africa, and Australia. Roy teaches exercise science at Seattle University in the Puget Sound, Washington.