Why athletes are afraid of sunscreen

I am someone who lives, breathes and obsesses over sunscreen. I also happen to be the furthest thing possible from an athlete.

Little did I know that my clumsy, lazy demeanor made my affinity for sunscreen so much easier?

When the idea of sports and sunscreen first came up, it initially seemed like a complete no-brainer. Obviously people spending hours upon hours toiling away under the sun, day after day, NEED to protect their skin!

Apparently that is the exact kind of assumption a sports-ignoramus would make.

According to further investigation (which consisted of miscellaneous patient feedback and a timely Wall Street Journal article) it turns out that sunscreen is absolutely loathed by athletes. It is mind-blowing to a sunscreenphile how poorly the worlds of sports and SPF mesh with each other. Although sports and SPF should go together like peanut-butter and jelly, it is crazy that in actuality they are like oil and water to each other?

The #1 complaint athletes have about sunscreen is that it hurts when it gets into their eyes. When sweat and sunscreen combine (which inevitably occurs) a sticky, painful goo is created that stings when it drips into the eyes. Being able to see is paramount to any activity, especially those where you need to be watching balls, catching/hitting things, or monitoring moving opponents. In the thick of a game, to not be able to see clearly is bad enough. To be in pain while momentarily blinded is even worse.

Additionally, the majority of sunscreens makes the skins surface greasy and slippery. Athletes hate this because it negatively affects their ability to properly grip a golf-club, tennis racket, ball, etc. If you cannot see the ball, cannot catch the ball, and are in pain to boot? It is a pretty good argument for never using sunscreen when sportsing.

Some athletes say they have spent years searching for the holy grail of sunscreens, all they want is something that doesn’t sting their eyes or make their skin too slippery. Seems like it shouldn’t be too hard of a bill to fit, and yet…

Cara Black, a tennis doubles player from Zimbabwe, said she uses a zinc cream.

Ukraine’s Olga Savchuk says the one lotion that doesn’t bother her is available only in Japan and South Korea, so Japanese tennis-pro Kimiko Date-Krumm buys it for her in bulk.

A few athletes have even tried to come up with ways to protect their skin without compromising their game. Jamie Hampton, an injured American tennis-player who was the world No. 24 at one point last year, said the key to applying sunscreen before playing tennis is just not apply it to your forehead. She doesn’t wear a hat, either. (I have shivers picturing her poor forehead.)

A lot of professional atheletes have given up altogether. “I’ve tried when I was younger,” said Tomas Berdych, the No. 6 tennis seed in the men’s draw. “Everyone says you have to use when you are in Australia or [New York]. You have to. But I say, ‘Yeah, I try but I can’t.'”

The risks of prolonged sun exposure are obvious. In the short term, athletes get sunburned.

Longer term, it significantly increases the risk of skin cancer.

Naomi Fenlin, skin expert at Philadelphia based About Face Skin Care, says she has treated both new and old sun damage, on both young and old bodies. “Younger athletes are more resistant to regular sunscreen use, even though they are better educated about SPF than the generations prior.” she says. “Because they are young, the serious, cumulative effects of sun exposure are not immediately obvious to them.”

“There can be a delay of one, five, ten years, before they really see, or have to deal with, the damage,” she says. Since they don’t instantly see any downfall to skipping sunscreen, it makes it much easier for today’s crop of athletes to shirk their SPF responsibility.

So what is the answer? Athletes are not wrong to dislike not being able to see, and losing grip-control.

Could it be as simple as hats?

Completely impractical for many sports, hats would also be detrimental to others by impeding scope of vision. Plus, hats only protect the face, not the entire body and there is the same compliance issue as sunscreen. Hats cannot be beneficial unless the person actually uses it diligently.

Perhaps protective clothing?

Any sports-wear that was intended for athletes to play in, while protecting their skin, would need to be an extremely forgiving material (so that range of motion would not be affected) and ultra light-weight for temperature control. Already sounds LuluLemon expensive, and not necessarily feasible for every variety of athlete, nor face workable.

In the end, is the best way to protect both the athletes and the game to take the decision away from the individual?

Although this would be the most expensive solution – could the best way to preserve the sport and the athletes skin be to move everything indoors or under protective cover? A fringe benefit of covered sports arenas would be that every spectator and fan would be protected as well. Regardless of how any of these people felt about sunscreen, their skin would be safe while sportsing without their having to do anything.

With millions (billions? trillions?) of dollars in revenue on the line with sporting events and gear, in addition to the medias growing coverage of celebrities / celebrity’s appearances / skin cancer, there will have to be some happy-medium in the near future. As soon as David Beckham (or someone of his ilk) publicly shares his skin cancer experience, the resulting media frenzy would likely force new options to come to market. Although I do not want to see bad skin-things happen to anyone, it will be very interesting to see how this situation progresses and what solutions are developed. This might be the one sports topic that my nerdy self can get excited about?