Are Athletes in Danger of Developing Skin Cancer?


Athletes force themselves through exhaustion and suffering on a daily basis and accept that their pursuit of personal excellence exposes them to the risk of injuries, but do they also accept the risk of developing skin cancer?

Prolonged exposure to UV radiation and the potential for sunburn are realities for athletes involved in outdoor sports and they are also the primary causes of melanomas. A melanoma, according to Cancer Council Australia, is

“…a type of skin cancer…which… develops in the melanocytes (pigment cells) and usually occurs on parts of the body that have been overexposed to the sun…and is considered the most serious type of skin cancer because it is more likely to spread to other parts of the body, especially if not detected early.”

A Case Study.

Already in Australia, one Australian Rules Football player, Jarryd Roughead, suffered a well-publicised case of skin cancer. Roughead developed a melanoma on his lip which later caused cancer to spread to his lungs.

Professional ‘Aussie Rules’ players typically spend two hours playing on match day and more time in the sun while training. They wear sleeveless jerseys and they don’t wear hats during competition. They’re also the object of much harmless ridicule for their famously short shorts.

Fortunately for Roughead, and fans of the Hawthorn Hawks, he returned to the field in 2017 after receiving treatment. He now encourages all Australians to undergo regular skin checks, in recognition of the fact that more than 12,000 people are diagnosed with the condition every year in Australia.


What if athletes have a tan?

Roughead has fair skin and light-coloured hair, making him extremely susceptible to skin cancer. However, Cancer Council Australia advises that

“…a tan will offer only limited protection from sunburn, usually equivalent to SPF3, depending on skin type. It does not protect from DNA damage, which can lead to skin cancer.”

This suggests that any athlete, from anywhere in the world, bears some risk of developing skin cancer while participating in outdoor sports, especially while competing in the many national and international sporting events conducted each year in Australia and New Zealand, countries around which this article is centred.

Australia and New Zealand have some of the highest rates of skin cancer in the world and are also located under a large hole in the ozone layer, exposing residents to yet more UV radiation. Furthermore, Cancer Council Australia reminds us that

“…sunburn is also common on cooler or overcast days.”

Athletes v Ordinary People.

Research findings in The United States elucidate the increased risk for athletes in comparison to us mere mortals.

“Outdoor athletes face double jeopardy because perspiring exacerbates their risk,” explains dermatologist Brian B. Adams, chairperson of the American Academy of Dermatologists.

“Perspiration on the skin lowers the minimal erythema dose, the lowest ultraviolet (UV) light exposure needed to turn the skin barely pink.”

Which sports pose the greatest risk?

Athletes who participate in sports such as Tennis, Athletics and Long-Distance Running, Triathlon, Sailing, Surfing and aquatic sports, Beach Volleyball, Lacrosse, Hockey (field), Rock Climbing and most football codes.

The Australian Open Tennis tournament exemplifies the risk.

Few players can be seen re-applying sun screen during a change of ends, not even the unbelievably fastidious Rafael Nadal. Players may have applied sun block before the game, but most reputable brands recommend re-applying sun screen every two hours during sun exposure “…or after swimming, exercising and towel drying.” This is true even for sunscreen with the highest SPF (Sun Protection Factor) rating and those designed specifically for sport.

Grand Slam Tennis players must be ready to spend at least two hours in the sun during the early rounds of a tournament, which also begs the question;

Why don’t they wear a hat?

Few players wear hats, even though the tournament is conducted during the height of the Australian summer. Interestingly, players and officials are sentient of the risk of heat exhaustion, and pragmatically take measures to reduce this, but few players adopt the precaution of wearing sun protection.

Some Tennis, Golf and Beach Volleyball players wear visors; others wear caps – some for sun protection or improved visibility, others to honour their lucrative endorsement deals. While some protection is sensible, Cancer Council Australia advises everyone to

“…avoid prolonged sun exposure and always wear protective clothing, a broad brim hat and eye-wear when out in the sun.”

Head protection during competition is rare in most football codes (except American Football) as well as Triathlon, Athletics and Long-Distance Running, Hockey and Surfing and other aquatic sports.

Cyclists and Cricket players cover their heads, for safety and/or sun protection, but Cyclists offset this sun smart behaviour with hours in the sun developing their infamous Cycling tan lines.

Surfers find hats cumbersome and unfashionable, and if you think image is not important for surfers, scour social media. Increasing the risk for surfers is the reflection of the sun off the water and the fact that many of the world’s best waves, and competitions, are to be found in warm, tropical locations such as Indonesia.

Developing a melanoma on the head or face is more serious than on other parts of the body because removing it requires a more complicated procedure.

The Gender Gap.

Female athletes often cover less of their body than men during competition (and sometimes during training). This is true for Tennis players, especially since the arrival of the fashion savvy Williams sisters and the highly marketable Russians, Kournikova and Sharapova. The trend is similar in other sports.

The ‘barely there’ outfits of female Beach Volleyball players attract large (often male) crowds while female surfers help sell enormous numbers of bikini bottoms, while their male counterparts promote boardshorts.

Elite Female Golfers often wear shorts during tournaments while men wear long pants. Female Athletes and Long-Distance runners, as well as Hockey players, cover less of their limbs in clothing designed for optimal performance.

In contrast, gender neutral uniforms are worn in sports such as Cricket and the major football codes (unless you count Lingerie Football, although is this played indoors?) and the degree of exposed skin is fairly uniform in Rock Climbing and Triathlon.


Good luck finding a professional athlete these days without a tattoo. Do tattoos impact upon the skin’s susceptibility to cancer? I don’t know, perhaps this is a topic for a future article.

Risk Reduction.

Athletes could follow the philosophy of the late Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru. When asked about running an Olympic record to win gold in Beijing, the Kenyan mentioned that the blistering heat made him want to finish the race sooner so he just ran faster.


Other measures include conducting competitions during the early morning, late afternoon or evening. Media coverage is already dictating this shift for many sports, but only for the elite athletes and often for the finals stages of tournaments. It’s also not a feasible option for some sports, such as Golf, Surfing (shark bait) and Marathon running (short cuts).

Advances in material and fabric could lead to adaptations in clothing and equipment, which could provide more protection for athletes without impeding their performance or comfort.

Finally, we can all take action to reduce the impact of Climate Change, because regardless of where you stand on this issue, the reality is that environmental damage is extenuating the harmful rays of the sun, exposing professional athletes involved in outdoor sports to a greater risk of developing skin cancer.

Images:Jeremy Bishop, Unsplash,

Cancer Council Australia,,

American Academy of Dermatology,



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