When it comes to sunscreen and running, many runners wonder: Should I go natural? Runners — and outdoor athletes in general — can easily wind up with irritated skin thanks to a mixture of harsh chemicals combined with sweat and sun exposure. Turning to a natural sunscreen alternative might be your best bet. Marathoner, skin lover and owner of Johnson Dermatology, Sandra Marchese Johnson, MD, FAAD, has the scoop. As a member of the American Dermatologist Association, she’s one of the most knowledgeable skin docs around when it comes to combining an active lifestyle with long-term healthy skin care.
1. OPT FOR ZINC OXIDE AND TITANIUM DIOXIDE FOR SUN PROTECTION
Rather than spritzing on aerosol sunscreens that start burning and stinging as you sweat, a more solid, physical blocker style of sunscreen — with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide — is Johnson’s preference. “They do not run in your eyes or cause chemical issues or rashes,” she says. This can be especially helpful if you’re prone to prickly heat-style rashes or chafing. “I personally use Brush-On Block when running,” she adds. “Daily, I use Total Defense and Repair to protect me and repair my damage, and I only use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide for sun block when there is a chance of sweating.” For those worried about the 90s-style lifeguard vibes of white zinc oxide, don’t panic: There are plenty of tinted versions out there now.
2. DO YOUR RESEARCH
Don’t be fooled when a label boasts “natural’ or touts that a product has ‘essential oils.’ Do your research first: It’s easy to label something as containing essential oils if even a drop is being used for scent purposes, so it might not be as eco-friendly as you think. “Natural is so misleading,” Johnson says. Really, most ‘chemical’ skin products — sunscreen included — are just fine, and definitely better than nothing! In addition to the sweat-dripping-in-your-eyes and stinging issues, she says allergies are the main problem with chemical-heavy options. A non-sweatproof one might be even worse: “Often times they will sweat off and not leave you protected so you will sunburn.”
3. DON’T BE FOOLED BY THE TERM “NATURAL”
“We need to remember poison ivy is natural,” says Johnson. “However, we don’t want to use those leaves when we need to ‘wipe’ when in the woods.” The same applies to essential oils like tea tree oil, which may work wonders for one person’s acne or problem skin, while actually burning someone else.
“Any product can cause an issue for people,” says Johnson. “We have seen people develop an allergy to coconut oil. I advise people to use Vaseline as a barrier cream.” Coconut oil, like tea tree oil, is another natural panacea that is recommended for virtually everything, from oily to dry skin, as lubricant, hair conditioner or even an addition to a cup of coffee. While it can be great, again, it’s common to develop allergies from overuse, and there just isn’t any one product that works for everyone.
4. BE SMART ABOUT RUN TIMES
The best defense is a good offense. Try to tailor your route so you’re not running on pavement at noon. “Sunblock is just one piece of the puzzle,” Johnson says. “To be sun smart, run in the early morning. Avoid the peak hours of 10 a.m.–4 p.m., and try to run in shaded areas.”
5. SKIP SUNBLOCK BY COVERING UP
You’ll still need to add sunblock to your face, hands and any body part that isn’t covered, but the more skin you can cover with protective fabric, the less stuff you’ll have to smear on your skin. “I would advise people to choose sun-smart clothing and wear a sunhat and sunglasses,” Johnson says. “To run, I use long-sleeve wicking shirts, and I love my running hats with a wide brim.” Under Armour has an entire Sunblock collection of sweat-wicking, comfortable gear to keep you cool and protected without needing to slather on sunscreen.