Whether you’re going for a run, playing a sport, or doing any other outdoor physical activity, it’s crucial to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. Failure to apply proper sunscreen when exercising outside puts you at increased risk for sunburn, premature aging, skin cancer, and other damage. Choosing an ineffective sunscreen formula can also lead to stinging eyes, streaky white residue, and having to reapply constantly – taking the focus away from your workout. The key is picking the right sunscreen for your specific sport or exercise routine.
When exercising in the sun, you want to use a broad spectrum sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30. Look for a water-resistant, sweat-resistant formula that won’t run into your eyes or melt off as you work up a sweat. Sunscreen sticks specially designed for the face can help keep perspiration from dripping into your eyes and causing irritation. For very lengthy outdoor workouts, consider a sunscreen with a higher SPF of 50 or above. Apply sunscreen liberally 15-30 minutes before sun exposure and reapply every two hours, or more frequently if sweating heavily or swimming.
You also need to be diligent about covering any exposed skin, including oft-missed spots like tops of ears, scalp if you have thin or no hair, and tops of feet. Using the proper sunscreen along with hats, sunglasses, and protective clothing provides optimal defense against the sun’s damaging effects. Don’t let fears of sunscreen interfering with your workout prevent you from applying it. With the right sunscreen formula, you can exercise safely outdoors without sunburns, skin damage, or constant reapplication interrupting your fitness routine.
The Importance of Using Sunscreen for Outdoor Exercise
Sunscreen creates a barrier on your skin to block UV rays that cause:
- Sunburn – Painful redness and irritation that can disrupt your workout
- Premature aging – Fine lines, wrinkles, dark spots from repeated unprotected sun exposure
- Skin cancer – Including melanoma that can be fatal
- Dehydration – Which leads to illness and fatigue during exercise
Without proper sunscreen, your outdoor workout could do more harm than good. Make sun protection part of your exercise preparation.
Getting a sunburn while exercising can be painful and seriously impact your ability to continue with your workout. The redness, swelling, blistering, and peeling caused by sunburns on your shoulders, back, chest, and other exposed areas will likely make your outdoor run or bike ride extremely uncomfortable.
Depending on the severity, sunburns can take anywhere from a few days to a couple weeks to fully heal. During that time, continuing your normal exercise routine may be difficult or impossible. Using sunscreen helps avoid the interruption and discomfort of getting burnt.
Avoiding Long Term Skin Damage
In addition to the short-term misery of sunburns, unprotected exposure to UV rays during outdoor exercise can cause long term skin damage. Repeated incidents of sunburn increase your risk of developing skin cancers like melanoma.
You also want to avoid accelerated skin aging that shows up later as wrinkles, leathery skin texture, dark spots, and other cosmetic changes typically associated with older age. Using proper sunscreen in your younger years helps preserve a youthful skin appearance longer.
Reducing Risk of Dehydration and Heat Illness
When you exercise intensely outdoors in the sun without sunscreen, you are more likely to overheat and become dehydrated. Sunburn essentially creates inflammation that makes it harder for your body to cool itself efficiently. You may feel hotter and sweat more, losing fluids and electrolytes.
Dehydration combined with physical exertion can lead to serious and even life-threatening heat-related illness. Be sure to drink plenty of fluids before, during and after outdoor workouts. Sunscreen provides an additional layer of protection against dehydration and overheating.
Preventing Eye Damage
Your eyes are also susceptible to damage from UV radiation during outdoor activities. Overexposure to the sun’s rays can contribute to various eye problems as you age such as cataracts, macular degeneration, and growths on the eye including cancer.
Using proper eyewear like sunglasses or goggles helps, but sunscreen also provides UV protection for the delicate skin around your eyes. Choose a sunscreen that won’t run into and irritate your eyes as you sweat.
Avoiding Immune System Suppression
Studies show sunburn and other sun damage may actually suppress your immune system functioning, making you more prone to bacterial and viral infections like colds or the flu. This seems especially likely if sunburn occurs over large areas of skin.
Applying sunscreen before outdoor workouts helps avoid this undesirable side effect and keeps your immune defenses strong. Take care of your overall health by protecting your skin from excessive sun exposure.
Preventing Other Skin Conditions
In addition to skin cancer risks, outdoor exercise without proper sun protection can contribute to other skin disorders. These include melasma (skin discoloration), actinic keratoses (scaly precancerous skin lesions), and photosensitivity reactions.
For people with eczema, lupus, or other conditions that make skin more sun-sensitive, diligent sunscreen use is extremely important. Work closely with your dermatologist to select appropriate broad spectrum sunscreens if you have a diagnosed skin disorder.
Choosing the Right SPF Sunscreen
What is SPF?
SPF (sun protection factor) indicates how well a sunscreen protects against UVB rays that cause sunburn. Higher SPF blocks more rays but no sunscreen is 100% effective.
Recommended SPF for Exercise
- Minimum SPF 30
- SPF 50+ for extended outdoor workouts
If you’ll be exercising outdoors for over two hours at a time, choose a high SPF sunscreen for maximum protection and peace of mind.
Select SPF Based on Skin Type
- Higher SPF for fair skin that burns easily
- Lower SPF may be sufficient for darker skin types
Consider your natural melanin level and how quickly you burn compared to tanning. Multiple factors like genetics, amount of prior sun exposure, and skin conditions impact sensitivity. Check with a dermatologist if you’re unsure of your skin type.
Benefits of Higher SPF Sunscreen
While a high SPF sunscreen costs more, it provides superior protection if you:
- Tend to burn quickly
- Engage in lengthy outdoor sports like marathons or triathlons
- Want peace of mind knowing your skin is safe
- Have a diagnosed skin condition or suppressed immune system
- Have a family history of skin cancer
Higher SPF also allows you to stay out in the sun longer without needing to reapply sunscreen as often.
Table Explaining which SPF to Choose for Outdoor Exercise
|SPF||When To Choose This SPF|
|SPF 15||– For short outdoor exercises (<30 min)
– If you have darker skin that rarely burns
– When sun exposure will be mild
|SPF 30||– For moderate length exercise (30 min – 1 hr)
– If you burn sometimes or have light brown skin
– When sun exposure will be moderate
|SPF 50||– For prolonged outdoor exercise (>1 hr)
– If you have fair skin that burns frequently
– When sun exposure will be intense
|SPF 70-100||– For very extended outdoor activities (multi-hour events)
– If you have extremely fair skin that always burns
– When sun exposure will be very strong (tropics, high altitude)
How Often to Reapply Sunscreen When Exercising
No matter the SPF, you need to reapply sunscreen regularly when exercising outside. Here’s how often:
- Every 2 hours
- After heavy sweating or swimming
- More frequently for long outdoor workouts or activities
Reapplying ensures your skin stays protected as your sunscreen wears off over time. Set a phone reminder if needed.
Tips for Reapplying During Exercise
- Apply to wet skin if you’re sweating heavily to ensure it absorbs
- Use spray sunscreen for quick, easy full-body application
- Carry a small bottle in your workout bag, pocket, or belt to reapply on the go
- Have a partner help apply sunscreen to hard-to-reach spots
- Apply a bit extra around sweat-prone areas like your hairline and lower back
Take a few seconds to thoroughly reapply sunscreen instead of just a quick spray or wipe. Missed spots leave you vulnerable to sun damage.
If you Miss a Reapplication
Don’t panic if you realize it has been over two hours since your last application. Simply reapply sunscreen as soon as possible. The protection does not immediately go to zero after two hours.
Just keep in mind that missing too many reapplications allows UV exposure to accumulate, increasing sun damage risks. Get back on your reapplication schedule as soon as you can.
Choosing the Best Sunscreen for Outdoor Activity
Look for the following features in a sunscreen tailored for exercise and sports:
Seek Out Sweat/Water-Resistant Formulas
These won’t drip into your eyes or wash off as easily when you sweat. Look for formulas with SPF that remains effective after 40-80 minutes of water exposure for best results.
Consider Sport Formula Sunscreens
These specialized sunscreens are less likely to run if you sweat. Many sport sunscreens are also gentle on sensitive skin and won’t cause breakouts or irritation.
Opt for a Gel or Spray
Gels and sprays are lighter, absorb quickly into skin, and are easy to apply thoroughly by yourself. Lotions may feel unpleasant and take longer to rub in when exercising.
Fragrances in sunscreen can sometimes cause skin reactions. Opt for an unscented formula, especially if you have sensitive skin or allergies.
Brands to Try
Popular sport sunscreen brands include:
- Banana Boat Sport
- Neutrogena Beach Defense
- Coppertone Sport
- Elta MD UV Sport
- Aveeno Protect + Refresh
Look for oil-free formulas if you tend to break out. Try a few to find your favorite exercise sunscreen.
Additional Tips for Sun Protection During Exercise
Besides sunscreen, protect your skin with:
Cover up as much skin as possible with:
- Breathable shirts with long sleeves and high collar
- Athletic pants instead of shorts
- Wide-brimmed hats to shield your face and neck
- Sunglasses with UV protection
Seek Out Shade
When possible, exercise in shaded areas provided by:
- Temporary shade structures
Avoid direct sun exposure, especially during peak hours.
Mind the Time of Day
Schedule outdoor workouts earlier or later when UV rays are less intense:
- Early morning before 10 am
- Late afternoon after 4 pm
Avoid exercising outside from 10 am – 4 pm. Plan indoor or shaded activities during peak sun hours.
Watch for Reflective Surfaces
Sun exposure increases near water, sand, concrete, snow and other surfaces that reflect UV rays up towards your body. Wear sunscreen even on cloudy days near these environments.
Stay Properly Hydrated
Dehydration worsens the effects of UV radiation. Make sure to:
- Drink plenty of water before, during and after exercise
- Take occasional shade or cooling breaks to lower body temperature
- Listen to your body and watch for signs of dehydration like headache, nausea, and fatigue
What is the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens? Which is better for outdoor exercise?
Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, while mineral sunscreens physically block them. Both work for exercise. Mineral sunscreens may be less irritating for sensitive skin.
Should I use the same sunscreen on my face and body when exercising outdoors?
You can, but some prefer a facial sunscreen that is lighter and less likely to clog pores. Choose oil-free, non-comedogenic formulas.
How do I know if a sunscreen is Sweat or water resistant?
Look for labels that state a sunscreen is effective after 40-80 minutes of sweating or water exposure. This indicates sweat/water resistance.
Can I use expired sunscreen if I’m just exercising for a short time?
No, expired sunscreens lose effectiveness. Always check expiration dates and purchase new sunscreen each season.
Is SPF really that important if I’m exercising in the morning or late afternoon?
Yes, UV rays can still cause damage during off-peak hours. Use proper SPF no matter what time of day you exercise.
Should I reapply sunscreen if I am just exercising indoors near windows?
Yes, you still need to reapply every 2 hours if exercising near windows where sunlight can reach your skin.
Does sunscreen need time to absorb before I start exercising?
Yes, apply sunscreen 15-30 mins prior to exercise so it fully absorbs into your skin to be effective.
Can I use sunscreen if I’m exercising in a shaded area?
Yes, UV rays can penetrate shade. Wear sunscreen anytime you exercise outdoors, even in shade.
With the right sunscreen and other sun safety steps, you can exercise outside while keeping your skin healthy, protected, and damage-free. Don’t let UV rays derail your fitness routine! Protect yourself and continue enjoying the benefits of exercising outdoors.