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Healthy and Fit? Why You May Still Be at Risk for Skin Cancer

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They run, bike, swim, and sweat. But beneath their fitness-loving lifestyles lies a scary secret. See how too much fun in the sun has put these women -- and possibly you -- in danger for skin cancer.

The Price of a "Healthy" Tan

Never mind your aching feet. All too often, it's your skin that bears the brunt of your workout habits. "Without a doubt, athletic women face an increased risk of skin cancer if they are taking their routines outdoors," says Elizabeth K. Hale, MD, clinical associate professor of dermatology at NYU School of Medicine and a spokesperson for the Skin Cancer Foundation. "When women exercise, we wear shorts, tanks, sports bras; a lot of skin is exposed to the sun. Plus, we sweat. Wet skin not only intensifies UV penetration, it causes sunscreen to wear off more quickly, dramatically increasing our chance of burning."

Moreover, certain factors, like family history and skin color, can boost your chances of developing melanoma. We sent five enthusiastic exercisers on a mission to discover how their outdoor lifestyles and personal backgrounds affect their skin. After they received full-body skin scans at MoleSafe in New York City, a melanoma-detection clinic that uses a dermascope to magnify suspicious skin spots, their scans were analyzed by MoleSafe's dermatologist and melanoma specialist, Mark Gray, MD, and Dr. Hale. See what they learned -- and how their lessons can help you lower your risk of skin cancer.

"A tan makes me feel healthy."

Kerstin Larson, 31, fashion designer
Skin story: "When I have color, it reminds me I've been active outdoors, and I feel healthier. I play soccer twice a week without sunblock, so I'm no stranger to burns. Right now I'm more concerned about getting wrinkles than cancer. And I have melasma, a skin discoloration, on my face. The sun seems to make it worse."

Scan says: "The sun has aged Kerstin's face a good 10 years," Dr. Hale says. (Read: Dark spots are imminent.) She has a lesion on her nose that peels and bleeds, often a sign of basal cell carcinoma, a slow-growing skin cancer. "It's benign now, but that could change," Dr. Gray says. "She also has a mole on her face that may morph into a slow-to-develop melanoma called lentigo maligna in the future."

The next step: "Kerstin should see a derm twice a year and do monthly self-checks to look for pimples that won't fade, often an indicator of basal cell carcinoma. "Once you get it, the chance of developing melanoma swells," Dr. Hale says. On the field, a broad-spectrum sunscreen with SPF 30 is a must. Sports versions, like Coppertone Sport Continuous Spray SPF 50 ($9.99, drugstores), are the easiest to use on perspiration-soaked skin. Plus, it'll help with melasma. (Sun exposure worsens the condition.) "It's smart to wear a baseball hat when playing too," Dr. Hale says. "It will shield the spot on her nose better than any sunscreen."

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