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7 myths about the sun that all athletes should know

Tommy Rivers PuzeySwiftwick athlete Tommy Rivers Puzey

While a run on the treadmill or a spin on a stationary bike will suffice every now and then, nothing beats fresh air and doing what moves you outside. But if you’re out running or riding in the sun, especially long distances, it is extremely important to make sure you are protecting yourself from harmful rays.

There is a lot of propaganda and misinformation floating around regarding sun exposure, sunscreen and their relation to cancer. So here’s our question: What do athletes need to know to protect themselves from the sun? We asked Wendy Vogel, an award-winning oncology nurse practitioner, to fill us in on some on the most commons myths about the sun.

MYTH: Sunscreen actually causes cancer.

Some people worry that sunscreen contains toxins that are absorbed into the body and damage the immune system and liver and actually promotes skin cancer.  

THE TRUTH: Sunscreens do not cause cancer. Sunscreens work by deflecting, absorbing or scattering the sun’s rays on the skin. Sunscreen remains on the skin’s surface and doesn’t cause DNA damage that leads to cancer. The FDA regulates the formulation, testing and labeling of any over-the-counter sunscreen product as it does a drug. This should relieve the fear that sunscreens contain cancer-causing toxins. 

MYTH: Using a sunscreen will prevent my body from producing vitamin D and increase my risk for cancer and other illnesses.

THE TRUTH: More than 90% of the vitamin D in our bodies is produced because of sun exposure. However, studies have shown that the normal usage of sunscreen does not generally result in a vitamin D deficiency. Just a few minutes a day of incidental sun exposure is adequate for vitamin D production. You can also get vitamin D from your diet through drinking fortified milk and orange juice. Current evidence shows that the dangers of UV exposure far outweigh the benefits.

MYTH: A “waterproof” sunscreen applied once a day is all that is needed.

THE TRUTH: No sunscreen is truly “waterproof.”  Some sunscreens are “water-resistant” but still must be reapplied frequently. Check the manufacturer’s recommendation for how often to reapply, but a good rule of thumb is at least every 90 minutes and after swimming, sweating and/or toweling.  No sunscreen can provide all day protection. Sunscreen should be applied at least 30 minutes before sun exposure and at least one ounce should be used for an adult each time. This means that an 8 ounce bottle of sunscreen is good for about 12 hours of sun exposure. So a family of four on the beach for four hours a day for five days needs almost 7 bottles of sunscreen! Check your expiration dates on last year’s sunscreen too! Most sunscreens expire within two to three years. 

MYTH: A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 means that I am protected for 15 hours in the sun.

THE TRUTH: SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. Sunscreens are required to show this value that reflects how well the product protects against UVB light. The number represents the amount of time you can safely stay in the sun when using the sunscreen properly compared to how long you can stay in the sun without using the sunscreen. This time is different for each person because some people will burn more easily than others.

The sun’s intensity influences this, as well as the geographic location and the time of the day. For example, if you can stay in the sun for 30 minutes before you start burning, then a SPF of 15 will give you 7.5 hours of sun protection. However, this means that you must use the recommended amount (one ounce of sunscreen) and reapply every 90 minutes or so.

Most dermatologists recommend using at least an SPF of 30. To protect yourself from UVA rays as well as UVB rays, you need a “broad spectrum” sunscreen, so check the labels! Ingredients in sunscreens that protect against UVA rays include avobenzone, oxybenzone, mexoryl, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.  UVA rays can penetrate glass, so it is even possible to need skin protection while driving your car! No sunscreen can completely block UV radiation, as some level of UVA or UVB radiation will penetrate the skin regardless of the SPF level. A sunscreen with an SPF of 15 will filter 92% of UVB rays, while a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 will filter about 97%. 

MYTH: Tanning beds are a safer, more controlled way to tan.

THE TRUTH: Tanning beds release both Ultraviolet A (UVA) and Ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation. UVB causes most sunburns by damaging the top layers of the skin. UVA rays invade deeper skin tissues and causes tanning. Tanning is how the skin defends itself by producing more melanin, a pigment that darkens the skin. Over time, both types of UV light can cause premature skin aging (wrinkles, freckles and age spots) and skin cancer including the most dangerous form of skin cancer, melanoma.

Recently the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classified tanning beds as a Class I cause of cancer in humans. (Class 1 is the highest class of carcinogens and includes tobacco and asbestos!)

No tanning bed is safe.  Some tanning salons promote “safer beds” because the bulbs used release more UVA than UVB rays. These beds are not safer as both types of UV rays can cause skin cancers. The IARC notes that the risk of melanoma is increased by 75% in people who use tanning beds before age 35. The National Cancer Institute (NCI) reports that women who use tanning beds more than once a month are 55% more likely to develop melanoma.

Many states have laws that require parental consent for children under the age of 18 to use a tanning bed. Some states are considering laws to prohibit minors from using tanning beds at all. Currently, the FDA requires that tanning bed manufacturers’ product labels include a recommended exposure schedule, limiting exposures to no more than 3 tanning sessions in the first week of tanning sessions. Unfortunately, many tanning facilities do not follow these regulations and offer “unlimited” tanning packages. The FDA, NCI, ACS, AAD and other healthcare organizations recommend limiting sun exposure and completely avoiding tanning beds.

MYTH: Getting a base tan will protect you from future sunburns and reduce the skin cancer risk.

THE TRUTH: There is no “safe tan.” Skin is injured any time tanning occurs. People with a base tan may have a false sense of security and use an inadequate amount of sunscreen. Even people with dark skin need a broad spectrum sunscreen (one that protects against both UVA and UVB).  

MYTH:  A sunscreen with insect repellent is just as effective as a sunscreen without insect repellent.

THE TRUTH: Insect repellents reduce the SPF of the sunscreen by about one-third.  So if you use this type of product, choose a higher SPF and reapply more often. 

You can find out what your risk for skin cancer is at the American Academy of Dermatology’s website. Don’t fear the sun. Just make sure you are protected and protected properly!

Wendy Vogel MSN, FNP, AOCNP is a leading oncology nurse practitioner at the Wellmont Cancer Institute in Kingsport, Tennessee. She is a founding board member of the Advanced Practitioner Society for Hematology and Oncology, winner of the 2012 ONS Mary Nowotny Excellence in Cancer Nursing Education award and author/editor of several award-winning oncology publications. 

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