16 Ways to Protect Your Skin When You Play in the Sun

 In Learn Hiking, Skills

I’m sure we all agree that adventure sports athletes (selves included) are some of the hottest people alive, right? But it’s hard to feel sexy with a sunburned face, chapped lips, a scabby nose, and bloodshot eyes that feel like they’re full of sand. Which is why we could all use some good skin care tips.

It’s not just a vanity thing. As skiers, shredders, surfers, and mountaineers, we spend long days in the sun. And sometimes we throw elevation, water, snow, and ice into the solar radiation mix.

We’re therefore at higher risk for premature aging. Which is kind of ironic. Because it would suck to run ultras or thru-hike for better health — only to end up looking like a three-pack-a-day smoker or develop melanoma at 32.

But as a 40-something, a mountaineer, a skier, a Coloradan, and a redhead, I can assure you this is totally not your destiny. You can totally have a badass face to go with that badass body.

Here are some skin care tips based on both experience and decades of dermatology consults.

1. Wear sunscreen.

Seriously, there are no excuses for this one. Without it, the rest of these skin care tips are useless.

Sunscreen blocks up to about 98 percent of the UV rays that cause cancer and aging. So unless you want to hike or surf in a burqa, it’s probably your best bet.

The good news is, in this day and age, there’s a sunscreen product for everyone. If you have trouble with sensitivities or breakouts, talk to your dermatologist. If you’re worried about toxins, splash out extra and get an organic product. (Or think harder about all the really REAL toxins used to treat melanoma.)

Just use it, OK?


Skin Care Tips for Outdoor Athletes Who Play Hard in the Sun

Some serious UV reflection


2. Wear the best sunscreen for you.

Here are some tips on picking the best sunscreen for adventure sports:

  • It should be broad spectrum, meaning it blocks both UVA and UVB rays. (UVB burns the skin surface. UVA penetrates to deeper layers causing wrinkles, saggy spots, and other signs of aging.)
  • The minimum SPF for outdoor athletes is 30. This will block about 97 percent of UVA and UVB rays.
  • But don’t go too crazy with SPF. Above about 50, the benefits are in such tiny increments, you probably won’t notice them. (Which doesn’t stop manufacturers from charging more.)
  • Look for something water and sweat resistant.
  • For longer days out and expeditions, carry travel sizes.

Finally, you’re more likely to use a product you really like, so experiment.

My new darling: Rocky Mountain Sunscreen. It’s fragrance free, water-resistant, and it goes on like silk. Also, they make travel sizes.

3. Apply it before you need it. 

That’s about 30 minutes before sun exposure, because the product needs some time to actually bond with your skin before it can block UV.

A couple bonus skin care tips: I put my first sunscreen of the day on in the tent or at the car, even if it’s still dark. People laugh. But I find that if I wait until the sun comes up, it always happens when I’m on a class 4 section of ridge.

Also, when applying early in the day, consider your clothing layers. Will you take off your long-sleeve top or zip off your pant legs when the sun gets higher? If so, lotion-up those arms and legs now.

4. Slather.

A couple surprising skin care tips: studies show most people don’t use enough sunscreen. So if you’re just dabbing some on your nose and calling it good, you could still end up looking like Leatherface.

Sunscreen is most effective when you apply it thickly enough to leave a greasy film. Let it soak in without too much rubbing. And if someone says, “You missed a spot,” tell them it’s because you’re doing it right.


Skin Care Tips for Outdoor Athletes Who Play Hard in the Sun

Don’t be this girl. Slather that sunscreen.


5. Reapply often.

Your skin actually uses up the protective ingredients in sunscreen. High SPF wears out just as quickly as low SPF. So bring along enough sunscreen so that you can reapply every two to four hours — or every hour during water sports.

6. No slacking on cloudy days.

UV radiation and visible light are different wavelengths. Most UV (about 80 percent) passes straight through cloud cover — and into that beautiful face of yours.


Skin Care Tips for Outdoor Athletes Who Play Hard in the Sun

Even in the California haze, there’s plenty of UV


7. Watch out for reflection.

Why are surfers and skiers more prone to burning than hikers and cyclists? Well, it’s because some surfaces absorb UV radiation while others reflect them:

  • Grass – reflects 3 percent
  • Snow – reflects 90 percent
  • Water – reflects almost 100 percent when calm

When playing near snow, ice, or water, put extra sunscreen on the underside of your nose and chin. In extreme conditions, consider covering your face (more skin care tips on that later).

8. Use SPF 30 product on your lips.

Burt’s Bees (the original, no SPF) is the one lip balm that makes my lips feel great in Colorado. But I’ve learned from experience not to wear it hiking, because my lips always end up getting burned.

When I started looking, I was surprised how hard it was to find lip products with 30+ SPF. I did finally find a Banana Boat one (SPF 50) on Amazon.

9. Protect your nose.

Having had a red-headed grandparent, I can assure you that the leathery nose thing a) is not sexy, and b) can happen to you. And unfortunately, our noses are perfectly angled to get the worst of the sun.

Some skin care tips for protecting your delicate little sniffer:

  • Wear a wide-brimmed hat
  • Wear baseball cap or visor under your climbing helmet.
  • In extreme conditions, cover your nose. Beko Xtreme Gear makes nose guards you can stick on your goggles or ski glasses. (Mine is pink.)

In a pinch, you can also put duct tape on your nose. Your pores may not love it, but it sure beats cancer.

Skin Care Tips for Outdoor Athletes Who Play Hard in the Sun

10. In extreme conditions, cover your face.

A friend of mine climbed the Mexican volcano Orizaba. The reflection off the snow was so intense, it burned the inside of her nostrils.

I also know mountaineers who have burned the roofs of their mouths this way. (They were panting, and the UV just reflected right on in).

High altitude skin care tips: prevent this hurtiness by covering your entire face. To avoid that suffocating feeling, use a light covering like a Buff or large bandana.


Skin Care Tips for Outdoor Athletes Who Play Hard in the Sun

Ain’t no sunshine on this face


11. If you’re camping in the winter, sleep with your sunscreen.

There’s nothing worse than waking up in the morning and putting half-frozen lotion all over your shivering body. You don’t have to worry about bears in the winter, so stick a travel size sunscreen bottle in your sleeping bag. (You can also carry it in an inside pocket to keep it warm for reapplications.)

12. Remember, sunscreen doesn’t live forever.

All the skin care tips in the world won’t help if your sunscreen expires.

I went to the beach in Thailand with two friends. Both of them shared a bottle of sunscreen. I put on sunscreen from a brand new bottle I’d just bought. (Same SPF.)

Within a few hours, both of my friends had horrible sunburn. One was so bad she had to be hospitalized.

Me? Perfectly fine.

The only thing we can figure out is that the stuff in their bottle was too old to be effective.

Sunscreen breaks down over time. But weirdly, a lot of sunscreen bottles don’t have expiration dates. If that’s the case, write the date on the bottle in marker. Replace your sunscreen every three years, or any time you notice any changes in color or consistency.

Also, heat can break down sunscreen, so don’t store it in your car for long periods.

13. Keep a snot rag handy.

Does your nose run like faucet then you’re outside in winter? Mine too.

But what to do? Wiping your nose on your glove, sleeve, or hand will chafe it. And reaching for a new tissue every five minutes gets old.

One solution: hang a soft cotton cloth from your pack strap in such a way that it reaches your nose. A well-worn bandana, a baby burp cloth, or a remnant from the fabric store all make good hankies.


Skin Care Tips for Outdoor Athletes Who Play Hard in the Sun

No time for snot on the gnar


14. Don’t forget your sunnies.

I know this post is about skin care tips, but this one’s worth a little departure. Snowblindness totally sucks, because your cornea has more nerve endings than any other body surface. And if it comes on during a multiday trip or in an exposed area, you’ve got worse problems.

So always wear sunglasses. If you’re going to be out for a few days, take a spare pair. Invest in glacier glasses or ski goggles if you spend a lot of time on snow.


Skin Care Tips for Outdoor Athletes Who Play Hard in the Sun

Because there’s no worse sunburn than a sunburned cornea


15. Ask your doctor about nose and lip scabs.

Some people (raises hand) are prone to this, especially after spending time in cold, harsh conditions. Yeah, super sexy, right?

According to my dermatologist, it happens when bacteria that naturally live in your skin invade a cut or abrasion. (See above about chafing a runny nose.)

The good news is that topical medications like Bactroban can help to treat outbreaks and prevent new ones. For expert skin care tips and nose scab prevention, talk to your doc or dermatologist.

16. Get regular skin checks.

Melanoma is one of the most lethal cancers, especially among young people. So please, my badass friends, get your skin checked regularly. (The recommended frequency depends on your risk factors, so ask your doctor or dermatologist.)

Got any great skin care tips you swear by? Comment below to share.

Skin Care Tips for Outdoor Athletes Who Play Hard in the Sun

Snow, surf, cold, and altitude can all be harsh on your face. Use these skin care tips to keep that youthful glow even when you're playing your hardest.

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