Shielding your skin with sunblock or clothing can reduce your skin cancer risk
In our article, “Swimmers’ Sun Exposure and Skin Cancer,” Sherrif F. Ibrahim, assistant professor of dermatology and oncology at the University of Rochester Medical Center, warns swimmers about the risks of damaged skin and skin cancer from extended sun exposure. Here, Ibrahim offers effective ways to shield your skin from harmful rays during workouts and meets.
Ibrahim recommends that swimmers wear waterproof chemical and physical sun blockers and UV-protective goggles whenever they’re in the pool or on deck.
When it comes to sunblocks, you have options these days. They can largely be lumped into two categories:
- Physical blockers, such as zinc and titanium dioxide, that prevent solar radiation from reaching the skin. Although many people envision white-nosed lifeguards of the 1970s when they think of zinc oxide, today these compounds can be rubbed in and aren’t bright white. “The newer physical blockers are micronized,” Ibrahim says. Particles in these creams are usually less than 0.1 microns in diameter and they’re available in waterproof formulations that are also free of harmful chemicals. Because they don’t penetrate the skin’s surface, they’re less likely to cause skin irritation or allergic reactions.
- Chemical blockers that bind to the skin and provide longer lasting protection. Chemical blockers might work better for open water swimmers and others who spend hours in the water and can’t reapply sunblock as easily. These products absorb, rather than block, ultraviolet light. Look for products that contain avobenzone (traded under the names Parsol 1789, Milestab 1789, Eusolex 9020, Escalol 517, or Neo Heilospan 357), as this chemical offers the best UVA protection currently available. For UVB protection, look for products that contain cinnamates or salicylates, but be aware that cinnamates, a chemical derived from cinnamon, can cause skin irritation in some people.
Either way, choose a long-lasting waterproof sun product with a minimum SPF of 30, that’s been developed for aquatic sports, Ibrahim says. SolRx, Badger, Blue Lizard Sport, Rubber Ducky, and Neutrogena Beach Defense are some of his favorites. Swimmers should apply the equivalent of a shot glass-full of an effective product to exposed skin at least 30 minutes before heading outside. Products should be reapplied as indicated on product labels. A swim cap and goggles that offer UV protection should top off the sun protection regimen.
Swimmers preferring to avoid creams and sprays can cover up. In cold water, a wetsuit is an obvious solution. Body-covering swimsuits are a second option. Solartex sells knee-length and long-leg swimsuits that provide 50-plus UPF protection.
Covering the body with clothing, a broad-brimmed hat, and UV-blocking sunglasses is the best way to shield skin from the sun on deck, but the type of clothing you choose matters. Sun protective clothing is assigned an ultraviolet protection factor number or UPF, the clothing equivalent to SPF. Not all fabric offers sun protection. “A regular T-shirt only provides a UPF of 3,” says Ibrahim. In general, if you can see light through a fabric, ultraviolet light can also penetrate. Wet fabric has a significantly lower UPF than dry fabric. Fabrics that are poor water absorbers such as polyester are good for sun protection.
Visit Your Dermatologist
All-American Masters swimmer and SaddleBrooke Masters coach Doug Springer, 66, had a melanoma scare two years ago. “Like many of us that grew up in the 60s, I never used sunblock. Being a lifeguard for many years only added to my exposure to the sun,” he says.
Springer had one melanoma surgically removed from his back and other precancerous spots frozen off. Fortunately, he’s now in excellent health and recently competed in a championship meet in Canada. “Now I swim in the early morning and stay covered from head to toe while I coach.”
Despite these precautions, Springer watches his skin, visiting the dermatologist twice a year. His wife accompanies him to point out anything that she’s noticed on his skin that looks different.
Ibrahim emphasizes that cancers commonly manifest as “nonhealing sores in sun-exposed areas” or “a pimple-like growth that remains after four or five months.” He suggests regular visits to the dermatologist and extra trips anytime something suspicious pops up. “Remember, no tan is a good tan. There’s no such thing as a base tan. As long as you’re getting more sun, you’re accumulating more damage. It’s kind of like a running meter. Too much damage leads to skin cancer.”
SPF: What’s It Mean?
SPF, or sun protection factor, is a measure of the amount of ultraviolet radiation that reaches the skin. “[It’s] a measure of the degree of protection against a burn. In other words, an SPF of 30 means you can sustain 30 times the amount of UV rays with the sunscreen on than if you didn't have it on, before you start getting a burn. SPF of 50 means you can sustain 50 times the amount of sun.” Ibrahim says.
He says this concept is sometimes misunderstood: “It is not an indicator of how long you're able to stay in the sun and is mistakenly interpreted as a duration of effectiveness. Total sun or UV dose varies on a lot of factors, including time in the sun, geographic location, altitude, time of day, etc.” he says, and reiterates the need to apply and reapply the products as indicated on their labels.
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