It’s that time of the year again where we shed the winter clothes and bask in the warmth of the
spring and summer sun. As runners, we are outdoors under the rays for more than most
individuals, and we get to take special advantage of the warmer weather. One thing that we
need to keep in mind, however, is the risk for overexposure and the damaging effect of UVA
and UVB rays from the sun. Let’s investigate skin cancer and its prevalence in runners.
Per the American Academy of Dermatology, skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in
America. Additionally, one in five Americans will suffer from skin cancer in their lifetimes, with
20 people dying every day due to this condition. We often think that those of fairer complexion
are more susceptible to sun damage, and while this may be true, darker skin tones and people
of color are also at risk. In fact, it can be harder to diagnose skin issues in darker skin tones due
to the lack in contrast. (1)
But are runners actually more at risk for developing skin cancer? The research would indicate
yes. In a study performed by Ambros-Rudolph et al, marathon runners were found to have an
increased risk of skin cancer. In fact, they found increased risk factors for malignant melanomas
in addition to the presence of skin abnormalities. An interesting finding was that an increase in
abnormalities was noted with increased training intensity and duration among runners. (2)
Why should increased training intensity and duration increase susceptibility to skin cancer?
Well, researchers have determined that higher-intensity exercise of increased duration
(running!) results in increased immunosuppression along with activity. We have long known
that running does decrease your immune system’s strength during activity and for a short term
following. But now we are seeing that it is actually impacting your body’s ability to protect
against sun damage. (3)
So, the question now follows: how many runners protect themselves against sun exposure? Not
many. In fact, in a study examining marathoners, researchers determined that only 23.5
percent of athletes use adequate sun protection. And just because the athlete knows about the
risks of sun exposure and skin cancer, it doesn’t change the behavior. So we need to put the
rubber to the road and actually change our habits to enact true protection. (4)
We’ve established that runners need to utilize skin protection to avoid sun damage and the
potential risk of skin cancer. But how? Let’s evaluate what true skin protection looks like.
When we talk about skin protection, the first thing that comes to mind is usually sunscreen!
Gotta get that SPF, right? Yes, sunscreen is an excellent protection against the sun – but it
needs to be sweat proof and at least SPF 30 to give you maximum benefits. And there’s that
whole part about putting cold greasy sunscreen on before you hurry out of the door for today’s
run. Typically, this is where people aren’t so dedicated.
So what can we do? Well, thanks to technology, we now have special fabrics that provide
excellent protection against the sun. Fabric protection technology is classified by UPF and is a
little different from SPF. UPF will actually protect you from both UVA and UVB rays, whereas
most sunscreens will only protect from UVB. The great thing about these fabrics is that you
don’t have to do anything special aside from wearing them to get the protection you need! It
doesn’t get much easier than that. Brands such as Patagonia, REI, Columbia and more are now
offering these UPF fabrics. Aim for a UPF of at least 40 to get maximum benefits.
●Skin cancer is very common in the U.S., affecting one in five people in their lifetimes.
● Runners are more susceptible to sun damage due to immunosuppression.
●Sunscreen is an effective barrier as long as it is sweat proof and SPF > 30.
●Sun protective clothing is an easy way to guard with a UPF > 40.
As someone who has a family history of malignant melanomas and a personal history of surgical removal of pre-cancerous moles, I cannot stress enough how important sun protection is for our health. Have questions? Email me today!
2. Ambros-Rudolph, C. M., Hofmann-Wellenhof, R., Richtig, E., Müller-Fürstner, M., Soyer, H. P., & Kerl,
H. (2006). Malignant melanoma in marathon runners. Archives of dermatology, 142(11), 1471-1474.
3. Moehrle, M. (2008). Outdoor sports and skin cancer. Clinics in dermatology, 26(1), 12-15.
4. Duarte, A. F., Nagore, E., Silva, J. N., Picoto, A., Pereira, A. C., & Correia, O. J. (2018). Sun protection
behaviour and skin cancer literacy among outdoor runners. European journal of dermatology: EJD, 28(6),