feature

Sun protection for cyclists - how to protect your skin when riding your bike

Riding a bike is healthy but time in the sun can lead to skin problems, some of them serious. it's easy to get caught out by the sun when cycling so here's how to protect yourself

We all love to be out on a bike on a beautiful day, but you need to be careful that exposure to the sun doesn’t result in premature ageing or even skin cancer. Sorry to put a downer on your fun. The good news is that protecting yourself is pretty straightforward.

Now you might be thinking something along the lines of: “Give it a rest, road.cc! It was snowing last week. I’m going to sun myself as much as I possibly can.”

Okay, but if your skin is fair after a long winter it’s more likely to get burnt, and loads of people head abroad to ride at this time of year – Mallorca, for example, Italy or the Canary Islands – where temperatures are warmer and you’re likely to expose more skin. Protecting your skin isn’t just something you should consider in the heart of summer. Loads of people get burnt at this time of year.

Western culture loves a tan and in cycling we have our own specific variety. Your archetypal cyclist’s tan comprises legs that are as close to creosote coloured as possible between the shorts and sock lines and similarly dark arms from the wrists to the ends of the jersey sleeves. Then there’s the tanned face with pale areas where the sunglasses and helmet straps have been.  

It’s not so common anymore but back in ye olden dayes you could get a tanned circle on the back of you hands that showed the gap left by your track mitts too.

Lots of people love their cyclist’s tan. The (hopefully satirical) Velominati rules even state: “Tan lines should be cultivated and kept razor sharp.”

That’s all very well, but over-exposure to the sun can lead to skin problems later in life including skin cancer which can kill, as well as premature ageing. 

According to the British Association of Dermatologists, “The dark pigment that gives the skin its natural colour is called melanin. Melanin is made in the skin by pigment cells called melanocytes. After our skin has been exposed to sunlight the melanocytes produce more melanin in an attempt to absorb further UV radiation, and so the skin becomes darker. A tan is actually a sign that the skin has been damaged and is trying to protect itself.”

So that’s us told.

“More than 100,000 new cases of skin cancer are diagnosed annually in the UK, and while the disease can also occur on parts of the body not exposed to sunlight, extensive sun exposure is thought to be responsible for the vast majority of cases,” says the British Association of Dermatologists. “In more than four out of five cases skin cancer is a preventable disease.”

You might point out that Great-Uncle Albert rode his bike for two hours a day his whole life without even thinking about protecting himself from the sun, and he lived to be 150. Cool, but many cyclists do get serious problems and you can take action to help ensure you're not one of them.

As a cyclist you're outside for extended periods of time on a regular basis, and cool air blowing over your skin as you ride means you might not realise the intensity of the sun. Plus, sweat can sometimes wash away any sunscreen you’ve applied, so what can you do to look after yourself?

“People often make the mistake of thinking that the sun in the UK isn’t strong enough to cause harm,” says Lisa Bickerstaffe, spokesperson for the British Skin Foundation. “This is not true. Never underestimate it and always follow sun safety procedures.”

First of all, no one is suggesting that you curtail your cycling.

“Cycling is a great way to stay physically active, which can reduce the risk of breast and bowel cancer,” says Emma Shields of Cancer Research UK. “Plus it can help you keep a healthy weight, which also reduces the risk of cancer.” 

Get out there and enjoy yourself, but take measures to reduce the risk of damage to your skin.

“During British Summer Time, the sun’s UV rays are strongest between 11am and 3pm so, where possible, think about going for a ride before 11am or after 3pm, when the sun isn’t as strong,” says Emma Shields. “When stopping for breaks, remember to seek out some cool shade to avoid too much sun. The best way to help protect yourself when the sun is strong is with a combination of shade, clothing, and sunscreen.”

Clothing

Short of going mountain biking in a forest, you can’t realistically stick to the shade the whole time you’re riding, so using clothing to cover up is key. 

“Aim for clothes with a close weave; try holding up the material to check you can’t see through the fabric,” says Emma Shields. 

You might remember four-time Tour de France winner Chris Froome getting badly burnt on his back through a mesh jersey a few years ago. Youch! It's certainly a danger, especially with lightweight fabrics designed to be highly breathable. 

Manufacturers sometimes give a UPF rating for their summer clothes. UPF stands for ‘ultraviolet protection factor’. A UPF rating of 50 means that only 1/50th (2%) of UV (ultraviolet) radiation can get through the fabric.

Castelli, for example, offers UPF 50+ Light Arm Sleeves (£25) and Leg Sleeves (£45).

“We can officially only rate these warmers at UPF 50+, but in our laboratory tests they actually blocked 99.8% of damaging UV rays,” says Castelli.

Rapha Lightweight Arm Warmers (£35) are rated UPF 50.

Endura gives a UPF rating for lots of its summer clothing. It says that its Translite short sleeve base layer (£27.99) offers UPF 25+, for instance...

...its Pro SL Lite Jersey (£74.99) is UPF 25...

...and the Pro SL bibshorts (£119.99) provide UPF 50. 

Pearl Izumi gives UPF ratings for many of its summer clothes too. The body of the women’s Sugar jersey (currently reduced to £19.99 on the brand’s UK website), for example, has a UPF 24+ rating.   

DHB’s Blok short sleeve jersey (currently £27 at www.wiggle.co.uk) has a UPF 30+ rating while the main body of its Aeron short (£50) is UPF 40+.

There are plenty more UPF rated options out there if you look for them. The best way to find out about the protection on offer is to go to a brand’s website and tap ‘UPF’ into the search bar.

Check out our pick of 18 of the best summer jerseys. 

When considering how to cover up, don’t forget your head and neck, particularly if you’re bald or have close-cropped hair. Apart from the health implications, you really don’t want to rock up at work on Monday morning with patches of burnt skin that match the pattern of your helmet vents. It’s not a good look. You can wear something like a Buff under your lid to provide protection against the sun, or go for a cap.

Giro, for instance, offers the lightweight SPF Ultralight Cap with an SPF rating of 30, and the SPF Ultralight Skullcap (£19.99) brimless version too. SPF stands for ‘sun protection factor’. If you burn in 10 minutes without it on, while wearing something with an SPF 30 rating you should be protected from sunburn for 30 x 10 minutes – so 300 minutes.

Read our review of the Giro SPF Ultralight Cap here.

It’s more of a mountain bike style, but a helmet with a peak/visor will also help.

Check out our helmet reviews here. 

Finally, make sure that you wear sunglasses. Chances are that you use glasses on the bike anyway to protect your eyes from the wind, insects and anything that pings up from the road, and they’ll also prevent damage from the sun’s UV rays. Repeated exposure to the sun can result in cataracts (an estimated 20% of cases are caused by extended UV exposure), macular degeneration and pterygium (a tissue growth over the white part of the surface of the eye), among other issues.

Read our eyewear reviews here. 

Check out our pick of 22 of the best cycling sunglasses. 

Sunscreen

What about sunscreen? Most of us use it at least occasionally while cycling for protection against UV rays.

“Even when it isn’t sunny, it’s worth protecting your skin with SPF as UVA rays can penetrate the clouds year-round,” says British Skin Foundation spokesperson Lisa Bickerstaffe.

UVA affects the elastin in the skin and leads to wrinkles and sun-induced skin ageing as well as skin cancer. UVB, on the other hand, is the form of UV irradiation most responsible for sunburn and has strong links to malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma risk – types of skin cancer. A sunscreen with a high SPF will help block UVB rays and prevent the skin from burning and so reduce the possibility of skin cancer.

Emma Shields of Cancer Research UK adds, “Many people think sunscreen is foolproof but it should only be used as the last line of defence on the places you can’t cover with clothes.

“Sunscreens with SPF 15 should provide enough protection, when used properly, wherever you are in the world. Sunscreens with higher SPF don’t provide a lot of extra protection and can lure people into thinking they can stay out in the sun for longer. The most important thing is to remember to apply it generously and regularly, especially if you’re sweating. And even ‘once a day’ sunscreen needs to be reapplied regularly.”

That means that if you're going on a longer ride, you need to take some sunscreen along with you. If you don't fancy carrying a bottle, look for sunscreen sachets. They weigh just a few grams and take up hardly any space in a pocket or saddle pack. Sling a few in with your multi-tool and spare inner tube for emergencies.

The SPF advice from Lisa Bickerstaffe of the British Skin Foundation is slightly different: “When choosing a sunscreen look for a high protection SPF (SPF 30 or more) to protect against UVB, and the UVA circle logo and/or four or five UVA stars to protect against UVA.”

UVA stars? It’s a system that indicates the percentage of UVA radiation absorbed by the sunscreen in comparison to UVB – in other words, it’s the ratio between the level of UVA protection and the level of UVB protection. A product can have anything from no stars to five stars. 

It’s worth remembering that if you choose a sunscreen with a low SPF it may still have a high number of stars, not because it provides lots of UVA protection but because the levels of UVA and UVB protection are about the same.

“Be sure to apply sunscreen around 20-30 minutes before going outside and remember to reapply at least every two hours, preferably more often if you’re sweating a lot,” says Lisa Bickerstaffe of the British Skin Foundation. “Make sure you use enough cream to get the factor stated on the bottle.

“Be sure to apply sunscreen to often-missed places such as the tip of the nose, the ears, hairline and scalp. Also don’t forget the legs. Sometime the back of the legs can be overlooked.”

A dermatologist local to road.cc told us that the calves are a particular problem area for cyclists because they always seem to catch the sun.

“People with fair complexions or skin that burns more easily, those who have red or fair hair or lots of moles or freckles are at a higher risk of skin cancer than others and need to be particularly careful,” says Emma Shields from Cancer Research UK. “You are the best judge of how your skin reacts in the sun and the more easily you get sunburnt, the more careful you should be.”

In brief

What can we take away from all that? Here's the most important advice to protect yourself from the sun:

• Cover up with clothing as your first line of defence.

• Apply sunscreen 20-30 minutes before your ride, even when it's not sunny.

• Reapply sunscreen at least every two hours.

• Sit in the shade at any mid-ride café stops.

Every year on the first sunny day of spring thousands of cyclists (including us) learn the hard way that sun can burn you even on a warm day in April …so every year we run this feature. 

 

Mat has been in cycling media since 1996, on titles including BikeRadar, Total Bike, Total Mountain Bike, What Mountain Bike and Mountain Biking UK, and he has been editor of 220 Triathlon and Cycling Plus. Mat has been road.cc technical editor for over a decade, testing bikes, fettling the latest kit, and trying out the most up-to-the-minute clothing. We send him off around the world to get all the news from launches and shows too. He has won his category in Ironman UK 70.3 and finished on the podium in both marathons he has run. Mat is a Cambridge graduate who did a post-grad in magazine journalism, and he is a winner of the Cycling Media Award for Specialist Online Writer. Now pushing 50, he's riding road and gravel bikes most days for fun and fitness rather than training for competitions.