Health: Don’t let the sun be a downer

Protect your skin from UV damage

James Bowthorpe circumnavigated the globe in a record-breaking 176 days, tackling some extreme conditions

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


A recent study from Cancer Research UK found the amount of men dying from skin cancer has doubled 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 an eight-stage cycling event the level of exposure to harmful solar rays – ultraviolet (UV) radiation – was more than 30 times over the international recommended limits.

Apply yourself

Bevis Mann of the British Association of Dermatologists (BAD) advises that we apply sunscreen before a ride and re-apply every other hour, as up to 80 per cent of sunscreen will come off through sweating. Martyn Frank, soigneur for pro cycling team Rapha Condor Sharp (RCS), says the RCS team get 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, as 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.

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.”

Be vigilant

Early detection of melanoma has a 95 per cent 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 like the cheeks, nose, tops of ears or hands that last for more than three months, as they may be precancers. Fair skinned cyclists are particularly prone, he says. For more information see:, or


Record-breaking round-the-world cyclist James Bowthorpe 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 suncream 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.

Email James at to get involved with his record-breaking JOGLE attempt this September. Don’t forget your suncream!