If you're an outdoor athlete, spring weather means it's time to start taking sun protection even more seriously. Even though the temperature may be struggling to reach 50°F, the sun can still wreak havoc on your skin.

"In the spring, sun protection goes from being important to being vital," says Charles Zugerman, MD, associate professor of clinical dermatology at Northwestern University Medical School. And that goes double for athletes and regular exercisers who spend hours each day in the sun.

With a few simple strategies, you can enjoy all of the benefits of exercising outdoors without sacrificing your skin, your health, or your athletic prowess.

Skin Cancer: the Basics

The number of new skin cancer diagnoses is growing each year. The good news is that most skin cancers are preventable and the majority are curable, if detected early.

"The best way to keep on top of developing skin cancer is to get annual professional exams starting at age 21 and to do a self-exam every three months," says Joyce Weisbach-Ayoub, director of public information at the Skin Cancer Foundation. "If skin cancer is not detected early, it can do considerable skin damage."

Basically, anyone can get skin cancer, but the main risk factors include having:

  • Fair skin
  • Light brown, blonde, or red hair
  • Blue, gray, or green eyes
  • A history of sunburns early in life
  • Atypical or large number of moles and freckles
  • Family or personal history of skin cancer

"Even more darkly pigmented people can get skin cancer," says David J. Leffell, MD, professor of dermatology and surgery at the Yale University School of Medicine. "Pigment does give you some natural protection, but if you're exercising out in the strong sun for a period of time, people with dark complexions may also find that they can get sunburned.

Sun-savvy Solutions

Fortunately, there are steps you can take to protect your skin.

Avoid the sun between 10 am and 4 pm.
The sun's rays are at their worst during these hours. Exercise in the early morning or later in the day—a time when it's also cooler. If lunchtime is the only time you can workout, seek out a shady route (but sun can still be reflected into shady areas), wear a wide-brimmed hat, load up on the sunscreen, and keep it brief.

Use a broad-spectrum sunblock.
You need one that blocks UVA and UVB rays, with a SPF of 15 or 30. If you're participating in sports that involve a reflection factor such as water skiing, snowboarding/skiing, or beach volleyball, use a SPF of 30 or 45.

Wear a broad-brimmed hat.
Baseball hats leave cancer-prone areas such as ears and the back of the neck exposed. A smarter option is a hat with at least a two- to three-inch brim. If you have thinning hair or are bald, a hat is a must.

Wear long sleeves and long pants when possible.
Look for clothes with tightly woven material. The average white cotton T-shirt has a SPF of only five or six when dry, and a SPF of about one or two when wet, says Diane Berson, MD, associate clinical professor of dermatology at NYU Medical School. Apply sunblock all over (including areas that will be covered by clothing) before going out to exercise or try sun-protective clothing .

Protect your ears, nose, cheeks, and hands.
Since the majority of skin cancers occur on these areas, consider them top priority.

Don't skip the lips.
"Lip cancer, although a small percentage of cancers, is potentially much more aggressive, dangerous, and harder to treat," says Dr. Zugerman. That said, look for a waterproof or water-resistant, lip-specific product with a SPF of 30 or higher. Plan on reapplying often as lips are moist and lip balms have a tendency to come off easily.

Wear sunglasses.
Choose sunglasses with UV protection. This will also protect the delicate skin around the eyes.

Applying Sunblock and Keeping It On

Apply it early.
Apply sunscreen 20 to 30 minutes before any sun exposure so that it has time to chemically react with the skin, says Dr. Leffell.

Choose "sport" formulas.
Sport formulas are usually sweat-proof, easy to apply, won't drip into the eyes, and dry to finishes that won't interfere with a grip on a tennis racket or a golf club. Dr. Berson recommends looking for gel, spray, or liquid sunblocks. "They'll feel less greasy on the skin, especially when you're sweating," she says.

Use a sunblock with titanium dioxide for your face.
It's less likely to irritate delicate facial skin and to sting if it runs into your eyes, says Zugerman.

Don't be stingy.
It should take about one ounce, or a shot glass-worth, of sunblock to cover your whole body, says Berson.

Apply sunblock systematically.
If you always go from top to bottom, you'll never miss a spot and won't end up with an oddly shaped, bright red blotch in the middle of your thigh.

Reapply.
If you're walking or doing a low-intensity activity, reapply sunblock every few hours. If you are sweating profusely, or are in the water or a windy area, apply it more frequently.

It's Not Just the Sun

There are a number of other factors that increase the sun's UV radiation. "If you're in areas of high humidity and heat, it makes sunlight damage even worse," says John Wolf, MD, chairman of the dermatology department at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, Texas.

Here are some other factors that increase the sun's damaging potential:

Snow
According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, sun reflected on snow can produce as much ultraviolet penetration as the sun on sand, especially at higher altitudes. So snowboarders and skiers need adequate protection, regardless of the temperature.

Wind
Wind can thin sunblock, so make sure to reapply every two hours or so if you're in a windy environment (think beaches, skiing, and sailing).

Clouds and Haze
Cloudy days are no excuse to skip the sunblock. About 80% of the sun's rays still get through.

Latitude
The closer you are to the equator, the more harmful the sun's rays are.

Altitude
UV radiation increases 4% to 5% every 1,000 feet above sea level you go, according to the Skin Cancer Foundation. "At a higher altitude, there is less air filtering out sunlight," says Wolf.

Reflection
Sand, concrete, water, and snow are highly reflective surfaces and they can bounce back as much as 90% of the sun's rays.

Burn Tactics

If, despite your best intentions, you discover your skin is starting to turn an unflattering (not to mention painful) shade of red, follow these recommendations from Dr. Wolf:

Take a bath.
Keep the water lukewarm, not hot. Consider adding an oatmeal bath product such as Aveeno to help soothe sunburned skin.

Moisturize.
After the bath, gently rub a good lotion or pure aloe vera gel into the skin.

Take aspirin when you see red.
If you notice you're starting to turn pink, get out of the sun immediately and take an aspirin or other nonsteroidal medication, such as Aleve or Advil. If taken in the first few hours, it may help to prevent sunburn or at least prevent it from worsening. Try a mild over-the-counter hydrocortisone cream. They work well for soothing mild burns and for mild rashes that result from sun exposure.

Seek medical attention.
For serious blistering, see your doctor immediately.