Why rowers should focus on sun protection

If you’re training in the heat then don’t miss these five top tips for rowers from Michelle Baker, CEO of the Melanoma Fund, and creator of Sunguarding Sport


Racing at the British Rowing Junior Championships (c) Drew Smith

As a rower, you invest both time and money into your health to improve your performance, training regularly, selecting technical equipment to keep injury free, ensuring your nutrition is on point, keeping mentally fit etc, however, how good are you at protecting your skin?

Although sun protection is important for all athletes to help avoid skin cancer, due to prolonged exposure to the elements, rowers are particularly at risk, facing a triple whammy from the sun above, its reflection off the water below, and the actual water itself, which can wash away sunscreen.

As an ex-rower, I am aware of how focused and disciplined you need to be in the sport – at any level – and sun protection can be your last thought.  Then, the early morning starts. It’s typical to commence training in fog or rain, and then 30 minutes later experience scorching sunshine.

“The key is checking the UV index, not the heat of the day”

But did you know that it only takes one blistering sunburn to more than double the chances of getting melanoma? With over 410 cases of skin cancer diagnosed each day, it’s a habit that needs addressing and a risk that needs to be taken seriously.

It’s worth mentioning that even when the sun doesn’t feel hot, or if it’s overcast, you can still be sunburnt. The key is checking the UV index, not the heat of the day. It’s a statistic that can be checked on your phone and if it reads 3 or above then the UV rays can, at best, cause sun damage and, at worst, skin cancer – the most common cancer in the UK.

Before joining the Melanoma Fund in 2014, I’d never heard of melanoma. I knew about skin cancer, and how sun protection was important, but I really only used sunscreen on holiday, and then at the very best SPF10, so as not to impede my tan.

Top tips for rowers

1 – Greasy grips

I never really wore sunscreen whilst rowing, which is a regret as I have since suffered untold sun damage, resulting in age spots, solar keratosis and worn out looking skin on my arms and legs as a result.  My excuse was ignorance, and wanting to avoid the dreaded greasy grip at all costs.

If this is your issue, we have a simple solution: use a sunscreen applicator, or wipe your hands with a small towel and antibacterial gel. It works a treat!

2 – Sunscreen

Another issue is that sunscreen can run or transfer into your eyes. If so, pick a sweat-resistant and water-resistant sports sunscreen. There are a variety of brands available, and these should be considered just as important as the rest of a rower’s kit. Sunscreen can wear, wash, rub or sweat off, so reapply every two hours or more often when around water.

3 – Sports clothing

Although sunscreen is effective, protective clothing should always be the first line of defence. Racer back tops are great for allowing free movement; they are not so great for protecting your shoulders and back from the sun. Rash tops are a great alternative, as are pull-on sports sleeves to protect arms and legs. However, if you prefer the former, get someone in the team to help apply sunscreen to the tricky-to-reach parts.

4 – Eye protection

Eyes are particularly vulnerable when rowing. A visor will protect you from the sun’s downward rays – but your eyes will still have to deal with light reflected from the water. Wraparound sports styles are great as they stay put, and when it comes to lenses look for a polarised finish, which are a great investment and popular with rowers.

Whereas normal lenses decrease the intensity of all light by the same amount, polarised lenses contain a special filter that minimises glare, making rowing in bright weather much more comfortable. You can also spot rocks and weed under the water with more clarity – handy when the water gets a bit on the low side in the summer.

5 – UV radiation recap

As mentioned above, UV radiation cannot be seen or felt, so check the UV Index daily, and use sun protection when it reads 3 or over.

Sunguarding Sport



British Rowing is supporting Sunguarding Sport, a new campaign by the Melanoma Fund. This free on-line resource contains guidelines for all in sport and outdoor recreation, as well as tips for specific sports.

Leave the water with a smile, not a sunburn!

For further details on all aspects of sun protection in sport, visit the Melanoma Fund here.

Without our members, we wouldn't be able to provide the guidance, support and emergency funding that we have been able to during the COVID-19 pandemic. Please consider continuing to support our sport by renewing or purchasing your British Rowing membership today.

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