How to prevent sunburn when you’re cycling

Protect your skin from UV damage when out on a ride

Take care of your skin in the sun

The signature ‘cyclist’s tan’ may help you recognise fellow roadies, but long days riding in the sun can have a more serious impact.

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Studies from Cancer Research UK found the amount of men and women dying from skin cancer has increased in the last three decades, suggesting that we fail to treat our skin with the respect it deserves when it comes to sun damage.

British Skin Foundation dermatologist and keen cyclist Dr. Ian Coulson says cyclists are particularly at risk from sun damage. “Cyclists face cumulative sun damage from chronic exposure,” he says, “causing a higher prevalence of cancerous melanoma and premature ageing.”

Research backs this up. A study of six cyclists in 2000 found that during eight-stage of the Tour de Suisse the level of exposure to harmful solar rays — ultraviolet (UV) radiation — was more than 30 times over the international recommended limits.

There are two types of ultraviolet rays that can cause damage and are linked to skin cancer: UVA, which results in premature ageing, and UVB, which is the main cause of sunburn.

The sun protection factor (SPF) of sunscreen refers to the protection against UVB rays a sunscreen offers. You should also check the bottle for a UVA seal or star rating which will indicate how much protection from UVA rays the sunscreen gives, which is typically at least 1/3 of the SPF value. 

So what can you do to prevent sunburn when you’re out on your bike?

Apply sunscreen. And then reapply it

Bevis Mann of the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) advises that we apply sunscreen before a ride and re-apply every other hour, because up to 80 percent of sunscreen will come off through sweating.

Martyn Frank, a former soigneur for pro cycling team Rapha Condor Sharp (RCS), says the RCS team got through sunscreen faster than any other product. “It only takes one missed application to risk later skin health issues,” says Frank. “Routine is the key to not making a mistake; all pro riders have a routine and all of them include sunscreen.”

Use a sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) higher than you think you need, because sunscreen is tested with 2mg on every square centimetre of skin, which is far more than most people apply. “We advise using at least SPF 30, or SPF 50 if you have fair skin,” says Mann.

Sunscreen has a shelf life of about 12 months, so make sure you buy a fresh bottle every year

On application, don’t forget areas such as the neck, ears, tops of knees, and bald patches, which are vulnerable through helmet ventilation. You can even burn through clothing, so apply to your whole body and wear clothing with UV protection.

But for a darker skintone, is protection necessary? “Skin types are categorised into six types, from phototype one — fair skin that burns very easily and doesn’t tan — to phototype six, which is darker skin that won’t burn easily,” says Mann.

“The processing of melanin, the skin’s pigment molecule that absorbs a proportion of UV radiation, is the key difference between the types. In darker skin, processing needs less UV damage to initiate tanning, leaving you less susceptible to sunburn and skin cancer. How much less isn’t easy to quantify and therefore we would still recommend applying SPF 30 or higher. It’s better to be safe than sorry.”

How much should you apply? The World Health Organisation (WHO) recommends about 35ml for the whole body, which works out around seven teaspoons or two palmfuls worth. That’s one teaspoonful for your head, face and neck, one each per leg or arm, one for the front of your body and one for the back. 

Sunscreen also has a shelf life of about 12 months, after which it starts to lose its protective qualities, so make sure you buy a fresh bottle every year. 

Be vigilant

Early detection of melanoma has a 95 percent survival rate so checking moles is essential. The Sun Awareness Campaign advises looking for asymmetry of the mole, blurring of the edges, colour change and an increase in size, as most melanomas are over 6mm in diameter. If in doubt, contact your GP straight away.

Coulson also recommends seeking advice if any rough, scaly patches appear on light, exposed sites such as the cheeks, nose, tops of ears or hands that last for more than three months, as they may be pre-cancers. Fair skinned cyclists are particularly prone, he says.

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Top tips for avoiding sunburn

James Bowthorpe, 2009’s round-the-world cycling record breaker, managed to beat the burn, here are his tips:

  • Wear a helmet with a peak to protect your ears, nose and lips
  • Apply a once-a-day suncream on your face — more than once a day
  • Wear sunglasses with UV protection, even if they aren’t proper cycling ones — your eyes can burn too
  • Cover thighs and the backs of your hands liberally with sun cream as they’re constantly exposed to UV rays
  • Wear long sleeves if you’re cycling for extended periods and look for clothes with a high UV rating
  • Article last updated 26 June 2018