It's fitting that we're in the middle of Skin Cancer Awareness Month, because I have spent most of May searching for the right sunscreen. Usually chilly spring temperatures keep me covered in long sleeves until sometime in June, but not this year. This lovely stretch of weather almost demands some kind of outdoor activity, but there's a drawback. Walking along the lake, kayaking in the lagoons, working in the garden, playing golf, enjoying a long run or bike ride – all of these result in substantial time out in the sun. Just like I would never hop on my bike without first donning a helmet, I know I should never head out the door without some kind of sun protection.
The stakes are high. According to Outrun the Sun, which sponsors a virtual nationwide race to raise funds for skin cancer education, one in 50 people will be diagnosed with melanoma this year and roughly one person dies from melanoma in the United States every hour. So how do we keep up our outdoor exercise routines without increasing our cancer risk?
Generally speaking, experts agree that wearing protective clothing is the best choice. They don't mean just a thin cotton shirt. In fact, some clothes provide an ultraviolet protection factor of less than five, which means you can get a burn right through the fabric. Fortunately, there is now an entire cottage industry for sun-protective clothing. You can also buy a wash that will increase the UPF of your favorite clothes. I've never tried the laundry additive, but I have an array of sun shirts and even a few pairs of lightweight, ventilated sun pants that have served me well. If the sun is strong but the temperature is moderate, they seem to be the best option. When the temperatures and the humidity climb to the unbearable level, even the most well-ventilated shirt gets too hot for me to wear while running.
That means I spend a lot of time in the sunscreen aisle at , where the choices can be overwhelming. Chemical sunscreen or physical sunblock? Waterproof or water resistant? Is there really such a thing as sweat-proof? Doing research on the Internet only leads to more confusion, as there seem to be as many opinions as there are websites.
The best advice I've ever received was from a dermatologist who said to just go with what you like. If you have a sunscreen that's effective but you hate it, you won't use it. So pick something you'll use regularly. Anything is better than nothing.
My go-to choice is Coppertone Sport, which covers well, seems to be effective, and doesn't leave me feeling too greasy. I know it's loaded with chemicals, and while I'm sure they're deemed safe, there's a small part of me that wonders if 20 years from now we'll find out they aren't so benign. That's why I also have a stash of lotions made with physical blockers such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. My current favorite is the Livestrong sunscreen by Thinksport. Yes, it leaves me looking like I've been dipped in a vat of White-Out. But it spreads on well with a little effort and the vaguely white glow has it's advantages: I can tell if I've missed a spot. So far, it doesn't seem to streak off when I sweat, a problem I've had with other brands. It does relentlessly cling to my skin, which is great until I go to shower and find I can't get the stuff off without some serious scrubbing.
As for facial sunscreen, for every day use I've tried a variety of lotions put out by cosmetic companies. When exercising I go for the Neutrogena Face Shield because of it's high SPF factor and I always carry a stick of Neutrogena sunblock with me to reapply, especially on long bike rides.
My kids love the Coppertone Continuous Spray, although I wonder if more sunscreen ends up in the air than on their skin. Still, if they'll use it more frequently because they like it, then I'm a fan too.
One trick I learned the hard way is to apply sunscreen before getting dressed, making sure that areas like shoulders, neck and upper legs are well covered. This is especially true for biking, because once you get on your bike and start riding, you may find your shorts and sleeves ride up a bit, leaving a sliver of skin exposed. Trust me, a one-inch stripe of red across your upper arms is not pretty. Don't forget UV-protective sunglasses, lip balm and a hat. Many bike helmets come with visors on the front to keep the sun off your face.
I feel like my quest for the perfect sunscreen is never ending, so I'll gladly take suggestions on how to stay active while being sun-safe. Just don't tell me to get up to run before dawn. I might be a crazy runner, but I'm still not a morning person.
For more information on the virtual nationwide run, check out the Outrun the Sun website.