By Roy Stevenson
It’s fun to exercise outdoors when the sun is shining. Exercise enhances oxygen flow to the skin, flushes 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.
But there’s a downside to spending many hours hiking, running, swimming, cycling, kayaking, canoeing and boating—people that do experience a higher incidence of skin damage and skin cancers than people who work out indoors. High levels of sweating and lack of protective clothing don’t help either. A recent study found that sweat contributes to UV damage by increasing the sensitivity of your skin, making you more susceptible to sunburn.
How does skin damage happen?
Melanin—A Warning of Skin Damage
The sun’s ultraviolet rays cause more skin damage than any other factor, in many 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 Skin Cell Damage
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 elasticity in people with severe dehydration. Dry skin looks flaky and prematurely wrinkled, even in younger people. Skin cell damage from excess UV rays includes actinic keratosis, a possible warning symptom of cancer, cell membrane damage and reduced immune system reactions—sounds scary doesn’t it?
Free Radical Damage to Your Skin
Overexposure to the sun speeds up the creation of free radicals, unstable molecules that damage healthy cells through the process of oxidation. This free radical production causes the collagen and elastic fibers in your skin to stiffen so you get wrinkling, sagging and damage. Luckily, your body also produces antioxidants, molecules whose job it is to sweep up those free radicals before they can do any serious harm. A diet high in antioxidants is recommended for people constantly exposed to the sun. See the Nutrition for Healthy Skin section to find out what to eat to maintain healthy skin.
How to Protect Yourself from Sun Damage
The best protection is to wear sunscreen and avoid exercising outside from 10 a.m.–4 p.m. when the sun’s rays are strongest. Unfortunately, these times are when most people tend to participate in their activities so you’ll need to take steps to protect yourself. Follow the steps to maintain healthy skin while exercising outside.
Clothing—Creating a Barrier
When outdoors on hot, sunny days, wear lightweight, light-colored clothing combined with plenty of sunscreen on both exposed and unexposed skin. However, if overheating isn’t a concern, dark-colored, tightly woven clothing is more effective at blocking UV rays than a white t-shirt, which allows UV rays to reach the skin. A cotton t-shirt only offers about UPF 7, or less when sweat-saturated. Choose shirts 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. The following brands offer sun protective clothing: Sun Soul, Solar Bar, Columbia, Solar Tex, Solumbra, Solar Eclipse, Sun Clothing, Sun-Togs, Coolibar and Patagonia. Also, the Skin Cancer Foundation (skincancer.org) sells long sleeved shirts that block 97% of the sun’s rays. You can also add Sun Guard (sunguardsunprotection.com) to your laundry, this colorless dye gives your clothes a UPF of 30 or more.
Wear a wide-brimmed hat to shade your face, ears and neck while outdoors. A hat with visor will not only shield your face, but will also keep your scalp–where cancers can develop more aggressively–safe from the sun. Get a hat from Wallaroo Hats (wallaroohats.com), which cover your head and offer UPF 70 protection. Follow these practices to protect your skin even on cloudy or overcast days because UV rays travel through clouds.
Protect your eyes from cataracts and the skin around them from developing lines by wearing sunglasses. Choose sunglasses that block 90–100% 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 more information on polarized sunglasses, read What’s Hot on page 30.
The higher the SPF (sun protection factor) in your sunscreen the better because these sunscreens provide extra protection. However, 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! That means a six-ounce bottle of sunscreen should last just a few applications—not all summer. Apply sunscreen 15–30 minutes before going outdoors.
A popular myth is that the higher the SPF rating you use, the longer you can stay out in the sun. While higher numbered products like SPF 85 do provide more protection, using sunscreen doesn’t prevent all the harmful effects of the sun. Most people don’t know that the SPF only indicates protection provided against UVB rays—not the invisible, UVA rays that also affect skin health and hasten the aging process. That’s why you need a broad-spectrum sunscreen that blocks both UVA and UVB rays. To find a sunscreen that protects against both UVs look for Parsol 1789, also called avobenzone, oxybenzone, anthranilates, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide on the ingredients list.
Nutrition for Healthy Skin
The foods shown to be good for skin health are also foods athletes should be eating to stay healthy. 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, eggs, fish, whole-grain cereals and dried beans for vitamin E; citrus fruits, berries, potatoes, tomatoes, 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.
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: Fruits and vegetables such as carrots, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, cantaloupe, spinach and broccoli.
Water—Stay hydrated with water and electrolyte-enhanced sports drinks, like Nuun U Natural Hydration (nuun.com) or Elete (elete.com), throughout your workout and 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.
Keep this guide handy year-round to maintain healthy skin throughout summer and anytime you exercise outdoors.
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 thirty regional, national and international health, fitness, sports, running and triathlon magazines. Roy teaches exercise science at Seattle University in Seattle, Washington.