Sunburn, an often-ignored sports injury, can result in immediate as well as long term injury. If exposure becomes chronic, it can lead to death.
Skin is the largest organ in the human body. An intricate network of blood vessels, nerves and glands provides a system for thermoregulation. It is responsible for protecting internal organs from the environment, leaving the skin susceptible to damage from the elements.
The sun produces invisible ultraviolet (UV) radiation. UVA and UVB rays can produce damage after excessive exposure.
Athletes whose sports require long hours of outdoor training are particularly susceptible to the sun. This includes runners, cyclists and surfers. Winter athletes are at risk due to reflection of sun rays on snow and ice, and because they typically compete at higher altitudes.
Protection from the sun involves several strategies:
- Timing. Sun exposure is minimized when workouts are scheduled before 10 a.m. and after 4 p.m.
- Clothing. Dark, tightly woven attire will block rays while light colors only scatter rays and loose weaves allow the rays to pass through. Modern fabrics allow athletes to remain cool while covered.
- Sunscreen. Athletes should use sunscreens specifically formulated as sweat resistant and waterproof. They should also have a sun protective factor (SPF) of 30-50. A high SPF lip balm is also recommended.
“Athletes often do not reapply sunscreen despite profuse sweating. It must be re-applied at least every two hours to be effective,” said Dr. Howard Rogers, a dermatologist at Advanced Dermatology in Norwich and member of the Backus Hospital Medical Staff.
He also believes instructing people to increase sun exposure to avoid vitamin D deficiency is misleading and that dietary supplements are the most efficient way of addressing this problem without unnecessary cancer risk.
Remember, you can never apply sunscreen too much or too often.