Skincare for Runners

As a native Texan and current Coloradan who spends a few hours outside per day, year-round, I’ve probably gotten a lifetime’s worth of sun exposure already. And while I wish I could say I’m diligent about protecting my skin every time I dip out the door, the truth is that I’m way more lax than I should be.

The statistics are sobering. The American Academy of Dermatology Association reports that skin cancer is the most common cancer in the United States, and will affect roughly one in five Americans over the course of their lifetime. Approximately 9,500 people in the U.S. are diagnosed with skin cancer every day. Every DAY!

The story gets bleaker for us runners. According to a study in the Archives of Dermatology, “Compared with a representative control group, marathon runners presented with an increased risk for malignant melanoma and nonmelanoma skin cancer.” Unsurprising, but distressing nonetheless. The recommendations offered by the researchers of that study are to “reduce UV exposure during exercising by choosing training and competition schedules with low sun exposure, wearing adequate clothing, and regularly using water-resistant sunscreens.”

While I can’t easily plan my race calendar around sun exposure, I certainly can take measures to better protect my skin while I train and compete. Choosing a good sunscreen and using it religiously is a great place to begin. Overwhelmed by the options out there, I sought advice from fellow runners on Instagram. Here are the sunscreens they recommended (with tally marks for those submitted more than once):

  • Alba Botanicals
  • Alba Hawaiian Spray
  • Badger Balm
  • Blue Lizard
  • Coola- III
  • Coppertone Sport
  • Elta MD- IIII
  • Goodness Garden
  • Laroche Posay
  • Neutrogena
  • Neutrogena 100% with Helioplex
  • Neutrogena for Kids SPF 100
  • Neutrogena Hydroboost- II
  • Neutrogena Sport
  • REN Clean Screen
  • Sun Bum- III
  • Super Goop- II
  • Think Baby
  • Transparent SPF by Sweat Cosmetics
  • Up & Up (Target) SPF 45 lotion
  • Vanicream

I’m fortunate to also have a very close friend and former roommate/training partner at Rice who is now a dermatologist in Houston, Dr. Allison Pye. (Follow @allisonpyemd on Twitter!) This girl knows her stuff and is passionate about sharing it. Here is her general skincare advice for runners:

  • Favorite brands: Elta MD, Laroche Posay, Neutrogena
  • Opt for mineral-based sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide
  • Go for physical blockers and not sunscreens that are absorbed chemically
  • Spray-on sunscreens can help achieve full coverage
  • Wear a hat and UPF clothing (she recommends the brand Sunday Afternoons) while outside when possible
  • Differin gel 0.1% is a good over-the-counter retinoid to use at night- retinoids help treat the collagens and proteins in the skin that become damaged from UV rays over time, while also treating acne, scarring, and wrinkles
  • A morning moisturizer containing SPF 30 or more is also a smart idea (her favorite is Cerave AM Lotion)
  • Eye protection is also important because your eyes can also get sun damage. Wear sunglasses!

Follow-up Questions for Dr. Pye

Can you say more about the morning moisturizer? Put on before running? In addition to or in lieu of sunscreen?

 I recommend applying a morning moisturizer every day, whether it’s sunny or not (you can still get damaging UV rays when it is cloudy), first thing after washing your face in the morning. The CeraVe AM lotion is nice because it has “invisible zinc” or so they call it, it does not leave too much white on the face and feels nice on your skin. It’s great for your skin’s overall health to be applying a moisturizer every day, so why not get one that has good SPF in it? You can also apply it to the neck and the hands because these are also areas often exposed to sun… through car windows, brief periods of walking outside, etc. This should not be used in lieu of sunscreen- best to add another layer if you are planning to go out for a run or any planned outdoor activities. It is also recommended to reapply sunscreen every 80 minutes during these times.

Also, how to know if a product is a physical blocker rather than a sunscreen that’s absorbed chemically? Thanks.

Physical blocking sunscreens contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. I recommend looking for these ingredients exclusively. Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients such as oxybenzone, avobenzone (more chemical sounding names). Recently, there have been reports that these chemicals may be detected in the blood stream after application; therefore, I like to stick with ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide because I know these minerals are safe for my skin and are not absorbed in the bloodstream.


Thanks for chiming in, Allison and all those who recommended sunscreens. If I missed anything, drop me a comment below!

  • Run

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Can you say more about the morning moisturizer? Put on before running? In addition to or in lieu of sunscreen? Etc.

    Also, how to know if a product is a physical blocker rather than a sunscreen that’s absorbed chemically? Thanks.

    My tip: If you’ve been running for 40 years and haven’t always been the best at sun protection, don’t for the first time ever look at your face in one of those hotel bathroom close-up mirrors, unless you want to put a damper on your vacation.

    1. All good questions, Scott! I’m passing these on to my dermatologist friend and will let you know what she says. Thanks!

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