Sun Safety in Outdoor Athletes

​Outdoor recreation sun protection tips

Credits: Jeff Isakk at
Lily Park
Edited By:
Raja Sivamani , MD, MS, AP

Outdoor recreation is a common and fun way to stay active. However, constant exposure to ultraviolet rays put outdoor athletes at risk for skin cancer. Skin cancer is the most common form of cancer in the United States[1] and one in five Americans are projected to develop skin cancer in their lifetime.[2] Although skin cancers are known to be the most successfully treated human cancers,[3] it is estimated to cost approximately $8.1 billion annually to treat skin cancers[4] with more than one million new diagnoses of skin cancers each year in the United States.[5]

A common safety precaution for outdoor activities is to avoid sun exposure during peak UV exposure hours from 10 AM to 4 PM, but it is often impractical for many outdoor enthusiasts. Prolonged UV exposure causes skin damage and results in greater skin cancer risk.[6] Despite this risk, studies revealed that the majority of outdoor collegiate athletes who responded to their surveys admitted to rarely using sunscreen. [7] [8] Here are some outdoor recreation safety tips and precautions for outdoor athletes.


Clouds are not Protective Enough

Cloudiness may not securely protect your skin from sun damage. UV radiation may still be high and sky conditions can change rapidly.[9] Therefore, outdoor safety measures should still be practiced. Attempting to follow shade during exercise does not reliably protect you from UV exposure either. A study that compared shade and sunscreen found that high-SPF sunscreen provided better protection against sunburn than a beach umbrella, although the sunscreen did not completely prevent sunburn.[10]


Skin Cancer in Darker Skin

People with darker complexions also need to protect themselves from UV light. They are less likely to wear sunscreen due to the false notion that they are not at risk for skin cancer. [11] Although skin cancer in individuals with darker skin is less common than in Caucasians, they still have a higher rate of advanced and thicker skin cancer along with a higher death rate from skin cancer due to delayed diagnosis. [12,13] Safety precautions in outdoor activities are still important.


Safety Precaution Programs

Programs that promoted sun safety habits to professional and recreational athletes have proven successful. National Cancer Institute implemented an intervention at ski resorts in North America through an education program called “Go Sun Smart.” The program logo “Use sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat” was advertised via posters, window decals, table tents, brochures, newsletter articles, a website, and a training module with a presentation. The ski lift operators received sunscreen and wide-brimmed hats. This resulted in reduced sunburn and UVR exposure in skiers and snowboarders.[14]  Additionally, providing select NCAA female golfers easy access to sunscreen by placing a supply in their locker rooms and bags increased their sunscreen application.[15] More of these systematic approaches for sun safety education are desired.


Summary of Outdoor Recreation Safety Tips

  • Wear sun protective gear such as wide-brimmed hats, sunglasses, long pants, and long-sleeve shirts
  • Limit the hours of outdoor practices that occur between 10 AM and 4 PM
  • Keep sunscreen and sun protective gear in locker rooms or sports field for an easy access
  • Apply sunscreen with a sun protection factor of 30 or above[16]
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours to reduce the risk of skin cancer[1]
  • Wear sunscreen, even on a cloudy day
  • Darker skin also needs sun protection 

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