By: Michael Mosciano, ATC
Many factors go into an athlete’s training. Rest, diet and proper equipment are all essential to success in their sport. But, with the long hours spent practicing outdoors, there is the associated danger of long term sun exposure. While a sun burn may only seem like short term issue, continued skin damage has long reaching consequences from premature wrinkles to the development of skin cancer. So, what are the types of skin cancer and what steps can you, as an athlete, take to help decrease the impact of the suns UV rays?
Skin cancer has become the most common type of cancer in the United States, with close to 1 million new cases diagnosed each year. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun damages the outermost layer of the skin. The damage to the skin over time creates small breaks in the DNA of the skin cells, which ultimately may lead to the formation of cancer. Warm weather athletes are at an even greater danger according to Dr. Brain Adams, MD, MPH, FAAD. “When you perspire, you are more susceptible to burn.” Perspiration on the skin lowers the amount of UV exposure needed to turn the skin pink.
The most common type of nonmelanoma skin cancer is basal cell skin cancer. This type of cancer is most commonly found on the head and cervical region, but can occur anywhere on the body. It is a slow growing cancer, rarely spreads, and the most curable if found early. Continued daily exposure to UV rays during workouts increase the athlete’s chance of getting basal cell skin cancer.
A second type of skin cancer is malignant melanoma, and while it may be less common, it is more aggressive and accounts for close to 75% of all related skin cancer deaths. Melanomas may develop in a mole or may look like a mole. Some physical risk factors for developing melanoma include red hair, blue eyes, fair skin, a family history of melanoma, and a history of multiple blistering sunburns. Some of the physical features of a melanoma lesion is the uneven or irregular borders and uneven coloration within the lesion. Treatment of a melanoma lesion usually requires surgical excision, which may include some removal of healthy skin to ensure the entire lesion was removed.
There are many steps that dermatologists recommend to help reduce an individual’s sun exposure and they include the following.
Be aware of the UV Index, developed in 1994 by the National Weather Service and the Environmental Protection Agency. It is used to provide a forecast of the expected risk of over exposure to UV radiation. It also provides a guide to how long an individual can be in the sun before skin damage would occur. For example if the UV index is 1, then a fair skinned person would expect to be able to stay in the sun without any protection for 60 minutes before getting sun burned. But if the UV index is an 8, then that same person would get burned after only 15 minutes.
Adjust your training time to early morning or closer to dusk and try to avoid the peak UV levels between 12 pm and 4 pm. One tip to use is the shadow rule; if your shadow is taller then you then UV exposure will be less than if you shadow is shorter. An added benefit of rescheduling your training time is that temperatures are usually cooler during these times.
Wear some sort of protective clothing to prevent skin exposure, which may include a hat, pants, long sleeved shirt and sun glasses to help protect the areas around your face. Look for clothing that is made of a breathable material, which can help wick away sweat and allow for cooling and still provide you with protection. There are also laundry additives that can be used to add UV protection into clothing
Use sunscreen on areas of your body that are most likely to get burned during your workout. The sunscreen protection factor (SPF) is a measure of the level of protection the lotion gives over the skin. The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends that the sunscreen has an SPF of at least 15. A SPF of 15 would indicate that your skin would have the same exposure amount in 15 hours that unprotected skin would have in 1 hour. The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) also recommends that you look for a sunscreen that provides protection against both UV-A and UV-B rays. Even if the product says it is water proof, be sure to reapply the sunscreen every two hours during activity.
The AAD recommends that you do a yearly visual check of your skin in front of a mirror and make an appointment with a dermatologist if you notice any changes, growths, or bleeding on your skin.
Remember, the next time you are heading outside for practice, be sure that you protect yourself from the sun’s UV rays. “Be Sun Smart!”
American Academy of Dermatology (www.AAD.org)
American Cancer Society (www.cancer.org)
The Skin Cancer Foundation (www.Skincancer.org)
Shannon C. Harrison, FACD and Wilma F. Bergfeld, MD. (2009). Ultraviolet Light and Skin Cancer in Athletes. Sports Health, 1(4), 335-340.