How to protect your skin while exercising outside

Summer skincare: how to protect your skin while exercising outdoors

Posted by for Wellbeing

Skincare might seem like something to prioritise on a cosy Sunday evening when you’ve got time for a face mask but if you’re walking, running or cycling outdoors, it should be an everyday consideration. Writer Amy Sedghi explores how to protect your skin while moving in the sun.

When it comes to fitness, a lot of thought goes into the exercise kit that we use, the gadgets we use and the recovery shakes we down. Something we often neglect, however, is out skincare. 

How we work out and the way in which we look after our skin tend to be two separate concerns; we’re more likely to associate skincare with a Sunday evening self-care session – facemasks, exfoliators and intensive serums – than a sweaty session on the bike. But skin, our body’s largest organ, is well worth paying attention to when it comes to exercise, especially during the summer.

“Regardless of the heat, the skin takes a beating during exercise,” explains Randall Cooper, a leading physiotherapist and founder of Premax Performance Skincare. Sweat, extreme temperatures and wind can take their toll, not to mention sport-specific issues such as chlorine drying out swimmers’ skin, runners battling blisters or chafing for those who spend a long time in the saddle.

Sweating is good for you… if you wash it off ASAP

“Skin plays a crucial role in maintaining optimal body temperature while exercising,” explains Cooper. “An increase in blood flow to the skin and sweating are how our bodies thermoregulate during exercise.”

So, sweating is good, but products – such as some mineral sunscreens – can inhibit this, says Cooper. “If you’re not sweating properly,” he warns, “you’re not cooling down properly.” He advises picking a sports-specific sunscreen, which will allow the skin to breathe and sweat normally. 

It’s worth noting that although sweating during exercising is healthy and to be expected, it’s important to wash it off post-exercise. “If sweat sits on the skin for too long, the sodium can cause skin dehydration, [while] ammonia and urea can cause irritation and inflammation,” explains Cooper. 

It’s especially important for cyclists to maintain good hygiene when it comes to cycling shorts. As tempting as it is, don’t sit around in padded shorts for hours post-ride; get them off and washed thoroughly as soon as possible and make use of a good chamois cream if needed.

Sun damage happens in all weathers

But while we all (should) know by now the significance of suncare on a blazing hot, sunny day, slathering on sunscreen tends to get forgotten about on cooler summer days. How many of us have assumed that just because there’s a slight breeze, we won’t get sunburnt?

Dr Angela Tewari, a consultant dermatologist at the Lister hospital, part of HCA Healthcare UK explains that “this, unfortunately, isn’t true. The breeze helps you to stay cool when you’re out in the sunshine [but] sunshine contains UV, visible light and infrared, which we feel as heat. The breeze will cool the feeling of heat but we will still get the damage from the ultraviolet radiation.” 

The solution? Shade, sunscreen and a hat, and avoiding exercising outdoors during the peak part of the day where the UV index is highest (11am-4pm). In fact, from March to October, the UV index is high enough to necessitate sunscreen use, adds Cooper.

Most people will remember a time they thought they’d be fine, only to spot the tell-tale signs of sunburn in their post-workout shower. “Even on cloudy days when the direct sunlight is not on you, you can still get sunburn if the UV index is high enough,” stresses Cooper. “It’s a good idea to put sunscreen on irrespective of the clouds in summer, so you know you’re protected.” 

We can develop skin damage whether it's cloudy, breezy or sunny.
We can develop skin damage whether it's cloudy, breezy or sunny.

How often should you apply suncream?

With that in mind, how much, how often and where should you be applying sunscreen? Well, it may seem obvious, but sun cream should be applied to all the parts of the body that are going to be exposed to the sun, says Dr Tewari. She also advises, paying particular attention to your face, back of your neck, chest and ears and applying sunscreen at least 20 minutes before going out. 

SPF 30 should be the minimum you use, says Cooper, while Dr Tewari advises a broad spectrum SPF50 with high UVA protection (especially on warm, cloudy days as UVA rays – associated with skin ageing – can penetrate clouds). Other mistakes people frequently make are not applying enough sunscreen (it should be around 30mls for the body from tip to toe and 5mls for the face) and not rubbing it in enough, according to Cooper.

The more you sweat, the more protection you need

For moderate exercise, it’s worth applying sunscreen every two hours, says Dr Tewari, but she suggests upping this to every 45 minutes or each hour if you’re taking part in higher intensity fitness. 

Essentially, the more you sweat, the more often you’ll want to top up your sunscreen. If you hate the crusty feeling of reapplying sunscreen when you’re already sweaty and salty, Cooper recommends wiping the skin with a small wet microfibre towel first. We reckon a squirt of water from your drinks bottle would also work. 

Another common misconception, according to Dr Tewari, is that when you’re swimming in a pool outdoors, you don’t need to apply sun cream. “When you’re swimming, it is extremely important that you take extra care with sun protection as the sun’s rays are stronger through water,” she explains.

A water-resistant sunscreen with SPF 50 and a high UVA cover should take a spot in your swimming bag, she says, and it should be applied 30 minutes prior to getting in the water. 

The link between sports, ageing and skin cancer

As well as wearing sunscreen, caps and visors when exercising outdoors, Cooper has the following key tips to avoid premature aging from practising sports outside: 

  • Exercise in the early morning or late afternoon
  • Opt for fake tan over a real one 
  • Get out of the wind as much as possible

Cooper, who has worked with Olympic teams and elite-level athletes, says that the most common regret he comes across in his work is athletes wishing they’d taken greater care of their skin. There’s also a reported link between sports, skin cancer and ageing, he explains, and it’s a highly important topic that he wishes was talked about more often. 

“As the saying goes, prevention is better than cure,” he says, urging athletes and fitness fans to pay particular attention to windy and sunny days which can increase sun damage. As well as the usual sun care measures, Cooper advises picking exercise routes that are as out of the sun or wind as much as possible. 

“If people have been exposed to the sun and wind and their skin is distressed as a result, a high-quality cream that helps restore hydration, condition and aids the repair process will help,” he says. Aloe-based gels can be a good option, while the Premax recovery cream is also a soothing lotion that sinks into the skin easily (we’ve tried it and were honestly very impressed). 

Avoiding blisters and chafing

Suncare aside, skincare for sport encompasses a wide range of preventative and recovery-based areas. Trying to avoid blisters, chafing, saddle sore, calluses, breakouts and rashes is the aim of sports-focused skincare ranges, and if you’ve suffered from any of those issues, you’ll know too well the pain and inconvenience such skincare issues can cause. 

Just as you would avoid an uncomfortable running vest with scratchy seams or a pair of shoes that pinch, it’s worth doing what you can to avoid performance-hindering issues such as sunburn, saddle sore and uncomfortably dry skin. As Cooper puts it: “Not getting on top of these issues quick enough may negatively impact your next session, or even longer.”

There’s no point trying to defy the ageing process with expensive night creams and serums if you’re leaving yourself unprotected from the elements when you exercise. Think of it as another tool to help you feel your best: just as you’d put the time in to hit a new PB or foam roll after a hard session, taking a few moments to rub in some sunscreen or massage in a recovery lotion can all work towards enhancing your performance.

For more exercise tips, training plans and healthy recipes, visit the Strong Woman Training Club.

Images: Getty

Share this article

Recommended by Amy Sedghi