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Sun Safety for Athletes

By Brian Adams, MD, MPH, American Academy of Dermatology member and chair of AAD’s Sport Committee, Professor and chair of dermatology, University of Cincinnati

Sunburns hurt and sometimes can knock you off your game for more than a few days. Unfortunately, these sunburns leave behind long-term damage to the skin even after the redness fades. Wrinkles, age spots and even an increased risk of skin cancer result from chronic exposure to the sun. 

Skin cancer is particularly a threat for athletes who play sports outdoors because of the amount of time they spend in the sun. Athletes routinely practice and compete during the time period that has the highest intensity of ultraviolet exposure (10 a.m. to 2 p.m.). Most athletes have been practicing and competing since a very young age, and this exposure adds up over the decades.

The good news is that there are steps that athletes can take to protect themselves from the sun and reduce their risk of skin cancer. This includes seeking shade when possible, wearing protective clothing and applying sunscreen before and during games and practices. 

How do I pick a sunscreen?

The American Academy of Dermatology suggests looking for the following information on the label when purchasing sunscreen:

  • Broad spectrum: The words “broad spectrum” mean that the sunscreen can protect your skin from both types of harmful UV rays — the UVA rays and the UVB rays.
  • SPF 30 or higher: The AAD recommends that you select a sunscreen with an SPF rating of 30 or higher.
  • Water resistant: Dermatologists also recommend that you look for the words “water resistant.” This tells you that the sunscreen will stay on wet or sweaty skin for a while before you need to reapply. Water resistance lasts either 40 or 80 minutes. Not all sunscreens offer water resistance.

What type of sunscreen should I use?

The best type of sunscreen is the one you will use again and again. Just make sure it offers broad-spectrum (UVA and UVB) protection, has an SPF of 30 or higher and is water resistant.

The kind of sunscreen you use is a matter of personal choice and may vary depending on the area of the body to be protected. Available sunscreen options include lotions, creams, gels, ointments, wax sticks and sprays.   

  • Creams are best for dry skin and the face.
  • Gels are good for hairy areas, such as the scalp or male chest.
  • Sticks are good to use around the eyes.
  • Sprays must be used thoroughly to cover all exposed skin. Do not inhale these products or apply near heat, open flame or while smoking. It is important to note that current FDA regulations on testing and standardization do not pertain to spray sunscreens. The agency continues to evaluate these products to ensure safety and effectiveness.

Some sunscreen products are also available as combination products in moisturizers and cosmetics. While these products are convenient, they also need to be reapplied in order to achieve the best sun protection. 

Sunscreen also may appear in combination with an insect repellant. The AAD recommends that these products are purchased and used separately — sunscreen needs to be applied generously and often, whereas insect repellant should be used sparingly and much less frequently. 

How should I apply sunscreen?

  • Apply sunscreen generously before going outdoors. It takes approximately 15 minutes for your skin to absorb the sunscreen and protect you. If you wait until you are in the sun to apply sunscreen, your skin is unprotected and can burn.
  • Use enough sunscreen. Most adults need at least 1 ounce of sunscreen — about the amount you can hold in your palm — to fully cover all exposed areas of your body. Rub the sunscreen thoroughly into your skin.
  • Apply sunscreen to all bare skin. Remember your neck, face, ears, tops of your feet and legs. For hard‐to‐reach areas like your back, ask someone to help you or use a spray sunscreen. If you have thinning hair, either apply sunscreen to your scalp or wear a wide‐brimmed hat. To protect your lips, apply a lip balm with an SPF of at least 15.
  • Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours to remain protected, or immediately after swimming or excessively sweating. People who get sunburned usually didn’t use enough sunscreen, didn’t reapply it after being in the sun or used an expired product. Your skin is exposed to the sun’s harmful UV rays every time you go outside, even on cloudy days and in the winter.

How much sunscreen should I use?

  • Use enough sunscreen to generously coat all skin that will be not be covered by clothing. Ask yourself, “Will my face, ears, arms or hands be covered by clothing?” If not, apply sunscreen.
  • Follow the guideline of “1 ounce, enough to fill a shot glass,” which dermatologists consider the amount needed to cover the exposed areas of the body. Adjust the amount of sunscreen applied depending on your body size.

Common athlete complaints about sunscreens

“I can’t reapply during practice and competition because the sunscreen will make my hands sticky/messy/etc.”

Athlete options: Wear sun-protective clothing underneath your uniform and/or use a sunscreen stick or spray.

“Sunscreens burn my eyes.”

Athlete options: Sweat itself can be quite irritating to the eyes, so it is not always sunscreen that’s the issue. Wearing a sweatband might help minimize sweat from dripping in the eyes. Using a sunscreen stick on the face or a sunscreen formulated for sensitive skin might help. Every athlete is a bit different, so it works best to try a few different kinds to find the one that works best for you.

“Sunscreens are too greasy.”

Athlete options: The technology of sunscreens has advanced such that many options exist to deliver the active ingredients to the skin.  Athletes can try the various creams, sticks, sprays and lotions that are available until they find a product that feels comfortable on their skin. 

“I don’t like to put chemical sunscreens on my skin.”

Athlete options: Scientific evidence supports the benefits of sunscreen to minimize short- and long-term damage to the skin from UV radiation. Preventing skin cancer and sunburn outweigh any unproven claims of toxicity or human health hazard from ingredients in sunscreens. If you are concerned about the chemicals in sunscreen, find one that contains physical blocker ingredients such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.

Sunscreen use extra important in athletics venues

The playing field and swimming pools reflect a fair amount of ultraviolet radiation back to the athlete’s skin. Wearing a wide-brimmed hat in these situations does not protect against this reflected ultraviolet radiation, so properly applying sunscreen to the face is extra important. Even skiers need to keep sun protection top of mind. Snow can reflect almost 100 percent of the sun’s rays back to your skin, and high-altitude areas receive a significantly greater amount of ultraviolet radiation than low-altitude areas.

Sunscreen availability increases use in athletes

One study investigated NCAA soccer and cross country teams at four universities. Of the surveyed athletes, 85 percent reported no sunscreen use in the previous seven days and only 6 percent reported sunscreen use at least three of the previous seven days. Athletes noted that one of the major barriers to sunscreen use was the lack of available sunscreen.1

A follow-up study looked into whether eliminating that barrier actually increased sunscreen use among NCAA athletes. The athletes with access to sunscreen in the locker room and in their bags had a statistically greater use of sunscreen. Athletes who had access to sunscreen in the locker room increased their sunscreen use by 1.13 days per week. Just as important, players with ready access to sunscreen during competitions increased their reapplication.2


  1. Hamant ES1, Adams BB. Sunscreen use among collegiate athletes.  J Am Acad Dermatol. 2005 Aug;53(2):237-41.
  2. Dubas LE, Adams BB. Sunscreen use and availability among female collegiate athletes. J Am Acad Dermatol. 2012 Nov;67(5):876.e1-6.