Sunday, September 19, 2010

Skin Deep: The Importance of Sunscreen and Sunblock for the Ultrarunner

My legs get extremely dark if I don't use sunscreen. A lot of times, I forget to put it on, so I have quite the tan right now. I need to get better at remembering to use the stuff. A lot of runners may overlook the importance of skincare, but I think it is a critical topic. Healthy amounts of sun exposure are important for vitamin D synthesis, but the sun can do a lot of damage to the skin, if proper caution is not exercised!

I've seen some runners who do not adequately take care of themselves with sunscreen. You can tell they don't take care of themselves because they look aged, much older than they rightfully should. It is quite sad, actually. Yes, we ultrarunners are a hardcore lot; we are freaks of nature, not unaccustomed to roughing it out through some pretty extreme conditions. But, that doesn't mean we shouldn't take care of our bodies. Notwithstanding the fact that it just doesn't look all that sexy, poor skincare is bad for our health. It goes without saying, our health is of primary concern.

What happens when we don't protect our skin? There are a lot of factors to consider when assessing the issue: altitude, skin tone, age, skin type, time of day, seasonal variations, etc. But, the basic principle remains the same: frequent and prolonged sun exposure carries with it certain risks. From a purely cosmetic perspective, a lifetime of damage due to sun exposure is to blame for increased laxity (sagging), rhytids (wrinkles), and poor skin texture, among other things. It makes the skin look older. There is also an increased risk for skin cancer.

What can we do to avoid these things? Simple. Use some kind of skin protection when out in the sun to protect against ultraviolet radiation (UV radiation). UV radiation is broken up into two categories: UVA and UVB, depending on wavelength. UVB radiation, which has a shorter wavelength, is primarily responsible for sunburn, whereas UVA radiation, which has a longer wavelength, is primarily responsible for long-term skin damage.

There are two basic kinds of protection: sunscreen and sunblock. Did you know there is a difference? Well, there is. Sunblock is stronger than sunscreen. It blocks out a majority of UVA/UVB radiation and breaks down at a slower rate.

Sunscreen, on the other hand, breaks down faster when exposed to sunlight and does not block out as much of the sun's radiation. Many sunscreen products do not block UVA radiation. "Broad spectrum" sunscreen products are more effective at blocking UVA radiation, but beware: even some products that are labeled "broad spectrum" may provide very little protection against UVA. But, they do effectively block UVB.

Here's how it works. There are two kinds of active ingredients in any sunscreen: inorganic particles and organic compounds. Inorganic particles, like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, provide a physical barrier that reflects UV rays that would otherwise be directly hitting your skin. These particles are invisible, thanks to nanotechnology. Otherwise, we would have to wear a product that made us look like we were dipped in white paint! While those inorganic particles are at work, organic components of the sunscreen product absorb the UV radiation and release that energy as heat.

The higher the SPF (sun protection factor) of the sunscreen, the more effective it will be in protecting your skin from the sun. However, a word of warning about SPF. SPF only measures the effectiveness of a product's ability to block UVB radiation. Again, UVB radiation is the kind that causes sunburn, redness, and pain. It does not measure a product's effectiveness in blocking UVA radiation, the kind that causes invisible, long-term damage to skin.

Sunscreen should be reapplied periodically, depending on the SPF level of the product. Please note that it is unrealistic for a sunscreen product to claim that it offers "all day protection." It doesn't. Bottom line: know your product and err on the side of caution by reapplying often.

I leave you now with the lyrics to a song, written by Baz Luhrmann, entitled, "Everybody's Free (To Wear Sunscreen)":

If I could offer you only one tip for the future, sunscreen would be
it. The long term benefits of sunscreen have been proved by scientists...

Enjoy the power and beauty of your youth; Oh! Never mind! You will not understand the power and beauty of your youth until they have faded. But trust me, in 20 years you’ll look back at photos of yourself and recall in a way you can’t grasp now how much possibility lay before you and how fabulous you really looked...

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