Sun Protection 101: The Value of Sunscreen for Athletes

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Summer brings serious sun and heat, so if you're planning to play or train outside, take along sunscreen. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention tells us it takes just 15 minutes for ultraviolet (UV) rays to affect our skin—enough time to get an unwelcome sunburn.

A sunburn is visible inflammation of the skin caused by overexposure to the sun's ultraviolet rays. Most sunburns are first-degree and cause the skin to become red and tender. More serious sunburns [second-degree] result in severe swelling, reddening and even blisters, which indicate that the burn has penetrated the skin's surface layers. warns that when large exposed areas of skin get burned, side effects can include headache, fever, fatigue and nausea—any of which can keep you out of summer training, games and other activities.

To prevent skin damage, layer on sunscreen, which is formulated with chemicals that interact with skin to protect it from UV rays. Soak up the following sunscreen tips and advice:

When you look at a sunscreen label, the letters "SPF," "UVA" and "UVB" represent:

SPF = Sun Protection Factor
A measure of how effectively the product protects against UV radiation.

UVA = Ultraviolet A
A type of ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun that penetrates the skin more than UVB and is responsible for tanning.

UVB = Ultraviolet B
A  type of ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun that is responsible for sunburn.

Tip: Athletes should wear sunscreen with an SPF of at least 30, according to the American Academy of Dermatology. "An SPF of 15 screens about 93 percent of UVB rays, and SPF 30 screens 97 percent, so anything above 30, you're really only getting improvement of small percentage points," says Academy member Dr. Ron Bernardin.

Tip: Apply sun protection every two hours, even on cloudy days. "Clouds only block about 20 percent of UV rays. Even though you're not seeing the sun, you're still being exposed to UV radiation, which creates sunburn," Dr. Bernardin says. The American Academy of Dermatology warns that UV rays are strongest between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. and are more intense when reflected off water and sand.

Tip: Reapply often, even when using a water- or sweat-proof product. "Those products are designed to bind to the skin better than a non-water resistant sunscreen, but they eventually wash away," Dr. Bernardin says. His rule of thumb: apply sunscreen liberally about a half hour before sun exposure, and reapply whenever you sweat a lot or come out of the water.

Tip: Sunscreen has an expiration date. Though the FDA requires it to be stable for at least three years, Dr. Bernardin recommends discarding sunscreen products that you've had more than one year. He says, "If you're applying [sunscreen] correctly, generally a tube shouldn't last that long. With each season, invest in another tube to ensure that the product is working at its maximal effectiveness."


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