Most runners complete a majority of their training outdoors. The outdoor setting confers numerous benefits, including improved mental health and increased vitamin D levels. However, outdoor running comes with one significant risk – skin cancer. Because of this risk, sunscreen for runners is as essential as a good pair of running shoes or other key gear.
Why is Sunscreen for Runners Necessary?
A 2022 review in Sports Medicine outlined potential health problems that could emerge from ultra-distance running. In this list of health risks, the scientists included skin cancer. Based on previous research studies, ultra-endurance runners had a higher risk of pre-malignant and malignant skin cancer. The combination of immunosuppression from prolonged exercise and prolonged UV exposure increased skin cancer risk compared to other populations.
The authors noted that only 62% of ultra-endurance athletes reported wearing sunscreen. These statistics may differ for road runners, who still incur UV exposure on their runs. A 2020 review in Sports Medicine noted that all outdoor athletes – including road runners have increased frequencies of sunburns – and therefore have an increased risk of skin cancer.
While less threatening than skin cancer, skin damage and premature aging can also occur with chronic UV exposure and sunburns. Sunscreen protects you from that skin damage, and can help prevent pre-mature aging.
Protective measures against sunburns and UV exposure include UV-blocking clothing, sunscreen, and sunglasses. You can’t just wear a hat and sunglasses and assume you are fine. If you are serious about sun protection, you need sunscreen to block the ultraviolet rays.
Do Runners Need Special Sport Sunscreens?
Any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen at all. That said: sport sunscreen will meet the specific needs of sun protection during exercise better than regular sunscreen.
What makes sport sunscreen more effective? Sport sunscreens are typically water resistant. Runners sweat – and that sweat can cause sunscreen to run off. Look for a water-resistant sunscreen to know that it will stay put, even as you sweat.
Does Sunscreen Cause Cancer?
You have probably seen social media posts and videos claiming that sunscreen causes cancer, and that you should go without it. As with many social media videos, this fear-mongering claim is based on a faulty interpretation of science.
The concern around carcinogenic ingredients in sunscreen primarily focuses on benzene. However, only one study – which has yet to be validated – has supported this claim. The University of Nebraska – Lincoln Medical Center points out that we don’t fully understand how much benzene is absorbed by the skin. As reported by the University of Colorado Cancer Center, the small risk from benzene would still be less than the risk of skin cancer from UV exposure.
Additionally, you can purchase mineral sunscreens that do not contain benzene (such as the sunscreens recommended below). Mineral-based sunscreens will not contain benzene and therefore are safer if you are concerned about potentially carcinogenic ingredients.
Will Wearing Sunscreen Affect Vitamin D Absorption?
You may have heard that sunscreen inhibits vitamin D absorption – but is that myth or fact?
For a bit of background: vitamin D is a micronutrient that contributes to bone health, immune function, metabolism (particularly insulin secretion), cardiovascular function and athletic performance. Vitamin D deficiency can occur in runners. When it does,the risk for stress fractures, training-disruptive illness, and suboptimal athletic performance occur, according to a 2020 review published in Nutrients.
Some of our vitamin D intake comes from food; a large portion of vitamin D synthesis does occur from sun exposure. The less sun exposure, the more likely an individual is to be vitamin D deficient, particularly in the northern hemisphere. Since sunscreen blocks UV rays, many conclude that sunscreen could block vitamin D absorption.
A 2019 review in the British Journal of Dermatology found that sunscreen usage did not impair vitamin D absorption. In fact, the experts advised that sunscreen and other UV-blocking tools (such as hats and sunglasses) should be used during outdoor exercise. As little as 5-15 minutes of exposure to the sun can supply enough vitamin D. Most runners are outside for much, much longer than 15 minutes. Use sunscreen during your runs, and have limited exposure without sunscreen at other times of day.
If you are vitamin D deficient, assess your diet and incorporate vitamin-D rich foods. Vitamin D supplementation may also be appropriate, especially if you live in areas without much sunshine. As with any supplement, consult your doctor or a registered dietitian.
How to Properly Use Sport Sunscreen
If not used properly, sunscreen does not provide enough protection.
- Ensure you use high enough SPF. The America College of Dermatology recommends a minimum of SPF 30; you may choose to use more for additional protection.
- Choose a sunscreen with broad spectrum protection. Broad spectrum sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays.
- Apply (and reapply) according to instructions. Most sunscreens recommend application 15-30 minutes prior to exercise, and then repeated application typically after 80-90 minutes of exercise. This means you may need to reapply sunscreen during long runs.
- Use it consistently. Sunscreen is most effective when you use it daily. Apply it before each run (unless running entirely in the dark).
The Best Sport Sunscreens
Supergoop Play (SPF 50) (purchase on Amazon)
Supergoop Play is the sunscreen I use daily as a Colorado runner. And it works! I’ve missed spots before and seen that skin turn bright red after a run or bike ride – but anywhere covered by the sunscreen remains unburnt.
Supergoop Play is a water- and sweat-resistant sunscreen designed for sport. This sunscreen absorbs like a lotion – no stickiness, no greasiness, and no stinging in your eyes when you sweat.
Supergoop sunscreens are mineral sunscreens that do not contain any potentially harmful ingredients. Their sunscreens are EU-compliant, which means they meet rigorous standards for safety. They are also cruelty-free and reef-safe.
You can also purchase a portable SPF stick version of Supergoop Play. This small stick can be stashed in your shorts pocket or running vest for easy re-application during long adventures.
FRE Skincare Protect Me SPF 30 (purchase on FRE Skincare)
FRE Skincare Protect Me features a lightweight, non-greasy formula. This mineral based sunscreen is hypoallergenic, non-comedogenic, vegan, and cruelty-free. It also provides gentle moisturizing. However, ths SPF is mostly for your face, so you may need an additional sunscreen to protect exposed skin on the body.
Badger Sport Sunscreen SPF 40 (purchase on Amazon)
Badger makes a line of reef-safe mineral sunscreens. Their sport sunscreen is water resistant, so it’s designed to tolerate sweat. The zinc oxide formula is also unscented, making it a great option for sensitive skin.
Thinksport Mineral Sunscreen SPF 50 (purchase on Amazon)
Thinksport is a zinc oxide sunscreen designed to tolerate sport use. This mineral sunscreen is free of chemicals such as benzene and parabens. The non-greasy formula is dermatologist-recommended, making it a good choice for kids or sensitive skin.