When a friend spotted the red lump on Georgie Rutherford’s left arm in May 2019, the 34-year-old professional triathlete brushed off her pal’s concern—and forgot it was even there. But four months later, on vacation, Rutherford’s brothers brought up the bump again. Worried it looked “big and angry,” they urged her to seek medical attention.

From the get-go, doctors assured her it was nothing more than a benign collection of visible blood vessels, so it took another several months for Rutherford to finally have the lump biopsied and receive the news: “It was stage 2C melanoma,” she says. “I went numb.
How could this have gone from harmless blood vessels to cancer so quickly?”

During those months, Rutherford’s melanoma had progressed—and in the February 2020 diagnosis, doctors said there was a 60 percent chance of her cancer coming back after surgery. It’s a terrifying and all-too-common story: Skin cancer remains the most common cancer in the U.S. and worldwide, and while melanoma (its deadliest form) makes up only 1 percent of those cases, women under the age of 49 are more likely to develop melanoma than any other cancer except for breast and thyroid.

Still, the diagnosis didn’t make sense to Rutherford. Though fair-skinned with blonde hair, she had no family history of skin cancer. Plus, she was fit and energetic. “I assumed people with cancer felt sick in some way,” she says.

skin cancer guide
The sun’s vitamin D is great; skin cancer is not. Use SPF!
Lauren Schulz
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How Outdoor Workouts May Have Played A Role

Rutherford didn’t feel off—far from it. She’d only just retired from her athletic career at the time of her diagnosis. But, having competed as a triathlete from the ages of 18 to 35—first at the University of Bath in the U.K. and later at the international level—she had often spent six to nine hours a week training outside, more focused on her workouts than on her sun-protection habits.

“I’d put sunscreen on in the summer or at the beach, but not during training,” she says. “I’d use some during long runs or when I was cycling, but I never reapplied or wore it during outdoor swims.”

There’s a good chance those habits contributed to her diagnosis. The data is clear: 90 percent of nonmelanoma skin cancers and 86 percent of melanomas are associated with UV radiation, according to The Skin Cancer Foundation (SCF), so protecting your skin when outside, whether by the pool or pounding the pavement, is crucial.

What’s more, the number of people exercising outdoors is increasing (likely a by-product of pandemic-era habits), according to recent data. In fact, more than 50 percent of women exercise outside, and they spend an average of five hours per week doing so, according to one survey. All this time outdoors, while generally an awesome thing, might be having a not-so-great effect on skin: Frequent exercisers were found to have a higher risk for melanoma, per research published by the Library of Science, which concluded that UV exposure was likely to blame.

skin cancer guide
Mastering your SPF routine makes activity better.
Lauren Schulz
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Skin Cancer Prevention For The Active Girl

That’s not to say you should quit fresh-air workouts—absolutely not. And possibly the opposite: Remaining active has its own unique payoffs in relation to cancer. Those with higher levels of physical activity pre- and post-diagnosis had improved survival outcomes for 11 different types of cancer, research shows. “Many cancers, including melanoma, are immune-mediated,” says Elizabeth Hale, MD, a clinical associate professor of dermatology at New York University Langone Medical Center. “When we’re stressed, immune function suffers, and exercise lowers stress levels, meaning activity can help with a cancer prognosis.”

What all of this definitely tells us is that it’s critical to remain diligent about shielding your skin from UV damage, says Dr. Hale. Rutherford’s lax SPF habits aren’t unique: Just 29 percent of women and 12 percent of men ages 18 and older applied sunscreen if they were going to be outside for more than an hour, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

And we get it—prioritizing SPF during outdoor workouts is challenging. You’re likely thinking more about strength and stamina than skin cancer. Plus, applying sunscreen before, much less during, a workout isn’t as simple as, say, slathering it on during the average day. You’ve got water and sweat to contend with, as well as the need to reapply often. But it’s worth the effort and strategizing to make it more intuitive and less of a pain.

30: The minimum level of sun protection you should look for in any product you’re slathering on. Source: American Academy of Dermatology

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Make UV Protection Work For You

First things first: You should wear a broad-spectrum sunscreen on all areas of exposed skin. Make sure the product you pick is labeled as sweat- or water-resistant to ensure it’ll last for the duration of your workout (learn more in “What Is Water-Resistant Sunscreen?” on page 105). Also, try to plan your outdoor activity for the early morning or late afternoon, avoiding the sun between the hours of 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., when the UV index is strongest, says Dr. Hale. (The UV index predicts when ultraviolet radiation will reach its highest levels, using a scale of 1 to 11+.)

What is water resistant sunscreen? Formulated to withstand both water and sweat for up to 40 or 80 minutes, these products contain ingredients that either help the sunscreen better adhere to skin or create a water-repellent film on its surface, says Yehiel Amouyal, a cosmetic chemist for Bryhel Cosmetic Laboratories. The FDA requires that this time claim be tested by applying the sunscreen on a person’s back, then immersing the area in water for 20 minutes, followed by 15 minutes of dry time. The SPF level is tested after two cycles (for a 40-minute claim) or four (for an 80-minute claim). Still, there’s a huge difference between what happens in a lab and IRL, as well as how much sunscreen will come off if you’re sweating for 80 minutes versus being submerged in water for 80 minutes, says Anthony Rossi, MD, an assistant attending dermatologist at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center. If you’re swimming or surfing, disregard that time claim and reapply anytime you come out of the water. Reapplication is also key on windy days, as aggressive gusts can cause the skin’s outer layer to slough off more easily, exposing skin to more UV rays, according to the SCF. (Opt for thick creams on these days.)

Even better, incorporate protective clothing into your arsenal too. Dr. Hale, who bikes and runs outdoors, says she’s never without a hat, sunglasses, and a long-sleeve UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) top. She also takes oral antioxidants (her fave is Isdin Sunisdin, $50, isdin.com) 30 minutes before prolonged periods of sun exposure. Heliocare ($35, walgreens.com)is another option; research has shown it decreases UV-induced damage. It’s important to note, though, that these pills are not meant to serve as sunscreen substitutes. Think of them as an extra layer of protection.

As Rutherford’s experience makes clear, the importance of reapplication can’t be overstated. Dr. Hale suggests basting your skin in another SPF layer anytime you’re outside for longer than 90 minutes—and sooner if you’re in the water or sweating a lot. Since reapplying on sweaty skin doesn’t feel great, gently pat your slick spots with a towel to remove excess perspiration before adding a fresh coat, says Rossi. Stick products are great on-the-go options because they can be easily stashed in a gym duffel, running vest, or belt bag.

Today, Rutherford, 38, is healthy and cancer-free (her melanoma was surgically removed a month after her diagnosis), though her recovery took several years, complicated by chronic lymphedema caused by the removal of her lymph nodes. The entire experience reshaped her sun-protection MO. “I thought I was doing a good job wearing sunscreen before this, but I realize now it was very half-hearted,” she says. “These days, I wear SPF year-round and reapply it on my full body, plus I wear a cap and sunglasses and won’t swim without a sleeve on. I want people to know what happened to me, especially those who still think having post-race tan lines is cool.”

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Shop Our Favorite New Waterproof Sunscreens

The latest water- and sweat-resistant sunscreens feel so great on your skin that you’ll actually want to use them before you hit the road, bike path, tennis court, or waves. Our five favorite newbies:

Protection + Vitamins Face Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50
Banana Boat Protection + Vitamins Face Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50
Now 30% Off
$8 at Amazon$11 at Walmart

This sophisticated formula has antioxidants for another line of defense. The price: decidedly down- to-earth.

Hueguard Invisible Sunscreen Stick SPF 50
Live Tinted Hueguard Invisible Sunscreen Stick SPF 50

The easiest reapplication option mid-run or during outdoor HIIT training is a sleek solid.

Invisible Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30
Alo Yoga Invisible Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

Gloopy, pasty SPFs can bea real drag when you’re working up a sweat. This one is invisible and weightless.

The Sporto Spray
Dune Sincere The Sporto Spray

A nonaerosol spray witha fast-absorbing andhydrating formula infusedwith aloe and avocado oil.

SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen
Juice Beauty SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen

Water- and sweat-resistant for up to 80 minutes, this cream hydrates with organic jojoba and coconut oils.

Styling: Kristen Saladino, Production: Tash Galgut, Hair and Makeup: Madison Levett
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