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Are We Increasing Cancer Risk by Covering Up?

Posted by on Jul 17, 2012 | 11 Comments

You know the warnings: If you’re going outside, cover up. Slather yourself with sunscreen. Avoid midday hours. If you have kids, treat them like vampires.

We’ve been hearing this advice for years. But is it really beneficial? Are we (runners) hurting ourselves by avoiding sunlight? Is our sun phobia causing more problems that it solves?

According to this US News story, we may be. This published article by Dr. Gordy Ainsleigh is even more damning. We’re even seeing an explosion of rickets among children from our panicked reaction to the sun.

The idea is simple- sun exposure is our best source of vitamin D. The potential negatives of sun exposure (increased incidence of skin cancer, premature aging) are far outweighed by regular, moderate, non-burning sun exposure due to a decrease in often-fatal internal cancers.

Me? I stopped using sun screen awhile ago, and only bust it out if I am going to be exposed long enough to burn and it’s too hot from protective clothing (like my experimental hat). I do the same with my kids.

What do you think? Should we continue pretending we’re extras in the latest Twilight flick, or should we follow this advice and get moderate weekly exposure to sunlight?


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  1. Rich Frantz
    July 19, 2012

    I stopped using sunscreen years ago, I didn’t want yet another chemical in my bloodstream. But at the same time, you have to use common sense and slowly build up your sun exposure. There is no need to sunbathe, that just overtaxes what your skin can adjust to.

  2. Paul
    July 18, 2012

    I’m not sure this is a responsible thread. The fact is that people do not listen to their bodies, if they did we wouldn’t have the levels of skin cancer in the UK due to over exposure.

    What’s the mantra barefoot runners say when they need to buy shoes – choose your protection not your correction.

    Sun block is protection.

    I have medium to fair skin, I will go out with factor 50 on a blazing hot day and some creams allow the ‘good’ rays in.

    In the wild I would expect primitive man to take shelter in certain temperatures (particularly north europeans). Animals do the same, running an ultra in blazing heat and not listening to your body, that’s not a natural situation and you are acting contrary to instinct.

    I have a friend with Rheumatoid arthritis and everyone who isn’t scientifically trained or a doctor or isn’t used to reading science research says “oh i have a friend you uses copper wrist bands, I’ve been told you should use herbal remedies'”

    However, having not experienced the chronic illness, they would soon come to realise that the current best solution is an aggressive treatment of combined drugs.

    I think we have confusion between what we are adapted to in a truly natural setting / situation (i.e. that natural primitive man would behave differently) and what we now believe our adaptations will allow us to do within the frame of our modern world and constructs – i.e. a marathon in the mid day sun. One is true to evolution / instinct the other is a mental construct determined by a modern belief system.

    Anyway, If the current london weather is anything to go by I could stand outside all day naked. Which I won’t do because the police told me if I do it again i’ll be in trouble….


  3. squirrel
    July 17, 2012

    I just found this article, which relates to Jason’s previous posts about perspiration:

    SkinCancerNet Article
    Athletes Face Tough Opponent: Skin Cancer

    Training and playing in the mid-day sun puts athletes at risk for skin cancer, a potentially life-threatening condition that affects 1 in 5 Americans. “Outdoor athletes face double jeopardy because sweating exacerbates their risk,” warns dermatologist Brian B. Adams, MD, MPH. “Perspiration on the skin lowers what’s called the minimal erythema dose, the lowest ultraviolet (UV) light exposure needed to turn the skin barely pink.”

    “You’ve already set yourself up for trouble if you’re not using sunscreen when outdoors participating in sports,” says Dr. Adams. “When you perspire, you are even more susceptible to a burn, and with continued exposure, to wrinkles, age spots, and maybe even skin cancer.”

    One Runner’s Story
    Skin cancer has left its mark on runner Deena Kastor, one of America’s top distance runners and a 2004 Olympic bronze medalist in the marathon. “I have 25 external stitches for basal cell carcinoma and early stages of melanoma,” says Kastor. “I also have six internal stitches to tie off blood vessels the doctor cut through because the cancer runs deep.”

    Deena Kastor encourages the public to take the necessary steps to prevent skin cancer. “I can only emphasize that it is never one thing that causes skin cancer,” states Kastor. “Maintaining healthy skin is a combination of using sunscreen, wearing clothing and hats that cover you in the sun, limiting exposure to the mid-day sun, eating foods high in antioxidants, and visiting the dermatologist regularly.”

    Marathon Runners Seem to Have Increased Risk of Skin Cancer
    Kastor is not the only distance runner battling skin cancer. A study was conducted in Austria after a melanoma referral center found that several patients were marathon runners. To find out if distance running increases the risk of developing melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer, 210 marathon runners and 210 healthy non-runners were studied. When comparing the runners with the non-runners, researchers found that the runners had more atypical moles, age spots, and other lesions that increase the risk of developing skin cancer.
    The reason seems to be the significant exposure during training and competition to ultraviolet (UV) rays emitted by the sun. The researchers also believe that endurance exercise such as distance running suppresses the immune system. A suppressed immune system increases the risk of developing skin cancer.

    These findings led researchers to conclude that the marathon runners had an increased risk for developing melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancers. The researchers recommend that marathon runners reduce their exposure to UV rays by training and competing when sun exposure is low, wearing protective clothing, and regularly applying a water-resistant sunscreen. Only 56.2% of the runners in this study reported that they regularly use sunscreen.

    What can an outdoor athlete do?
    The American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends seeking shade from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., which according to Dr. Adams is, “exactly the time when most teams are outside practicing, from soccer players to long-distance runners to tennis players. These athletes are getting an enormous amount of exposure to UV light, and it’s important that they follow some sun-safety precautions, including wearing sunscreen and protective clothes.”

    For more information about how athletes can help protect themselves from the sun, visit Be Sun Smart®: Protect Yourself from the Sun.

    Ambros-Rudolph CM et al. “Malignant Melanoma in Marathon Runners.” Archives of Dermatology. 2006 November;142(11):1471-1474.

  4. Tim N
    July 17, 2012

    Life is a carcinogen, but I love it so.

  5. Janice
    July 17, 2012

    I haven’t worn sunscreen for years. I spent my teenage years on a beach with baby oil slathered on and had many burns, so I figure I’m probably done.

    I also think the sun is healthy for us. I put sunscreen on my youngest who is quite pasty white, but only if she’s going to be out all day. For just regular stuff, none of us here use sunscreen.

    Who cares about aging anyway. It took a lot of work to earn my wrinkles. I’m proud of them & my healthy tan:)

  6. Shane D.
    July 17, 2012

    If we listened to every story about what causes cancer or could harm us, we would all be living in a plastic bubble. And then there would be a story about the plastic bubble harming us. Get the moderate exposure of sunlight required and live life a little!

  7. Malva
    July 17, 2012

    On a recent hot and sunny day at the beach, a family next to us had 3 kids looking to be between 3 and 6 years old. All three were building sand castles wearing sun suits, large brimmed hats, sunglasses and pfds.

    My husband pointed them out to me saying: “Do we look like bad parents?” Our kids were in bathing suits and nothing else. I shrugged.

    I sunscreen the kids if they’re going to be in full sun for an extended period of time between 11 and 2. If there is partial shade, they’re not in their bathing suits or it’s outside of those hours, I don’t. I normally put ball caps and sunglasses on them but when they come off, I don’t insist.

    Same for me.

    Unless we’re in a situation where we’ll get a sunburn for sure without sunscreen, we don’t wear any. No prophylactic sunscreen for our family.

  8. Gina
    July 17, 2012

    I have family members with skin cancer on both sides of my family. Since skin cancer is very preventable, I choose to sunscreen or cover up. Trust me, even with sunscreen, I get plenty of vitamin D on a multi-hour run. However, I don’t put on sunscreen for shorter runs or slather my children daily unless they will out for over an hour. There’s a balance here, as there is with all things.

    • David Goulette
      July 17, 2012

      I agree Gina. It is a balance. Also, there are probably many factors affecting who develops skin cancer. Clearly excessive sun exposure and genetics are big ones. But I wonder how diet, exercise and managing stress factors into the whole thing as well. I would like to know how many relatively healthy outdoorsy-type people get skin cancer.

  9. Wild Runner
    July 17, 2012

    The fact that body needs Vitamin D is undeniable, and the sun is the best source. Progressive exposure to the sun should be a part of our lives, start at 10 minutes and add a little more over time.

    I read that we would only need 20 mins per day max, so then covering up would be a good idea. No sun exposure is probably damaging our health, it is just that the health advisors are too scared to recommend any, for fear of reprisals from those who can’t be sensible and end up like prunes

  10. Bare Lee
    July 17, 2012

    The same logic that says we need cushy shoes to run says we need lotion to go outside. Just use protection if your base tan isn’t up to prolonged protection yet. Like if you normally only get an hour of sun exposure a day, but on some weekend you’re going to be in a fishing boat for the afternoon.
    This is another area wear I have to deal with brainwashed parents, teachers, and camp counselors, just like the whole footwear thing. Really annoying. Of course, if you’re stupid enough to sunbath, that’s a whole ‘nother story.