Knowledge Level: Beginner
Whether it’s a summer’s day in the UK or a warm weather event or training camp abroad, cycling is always more enjoyable with the sun on your back. However, as a cyclist, your skin is at risk of damage from the sun and possible related serious health concerns. We spoke to keen cyclist Professor Brian Diffey from the British Association of Dermatologists.
The advice you often hear is to avoid going out when the sun is most intense (1100-1500) but, for cyclists heading out for a big ride, this often isn’t practical. What steps can they take?
Before you go out on a ride have a look online for the UV forecast in your area, particularly during summer. Try to avoid cycling during the times of the day when the UV forecast is at its highest. Although this might not coincide with when you’d normally head out, if the UV forecast is high, it’s worth being a bit more flexible about when you ride. If you leave the house early, you can still get 3-4 hours of riding in or, even if you wait until later in the day, there’s still plenty of daylight left. If this isn’t feasible then make sure you have plenty of sun protection, particularly sunscreen, and stop to reapply it regularly.
What should cyclists look for in a sunscreen?
You want a minimum of SPF 30 and good UVA protection. There are two symbols for UVA protection and the one most commonly found in the UK is the UVA star system, illustrated here and which you will find on the back of sunscreen bottles.
For optimal UVA protection we recommend four or five stars.
You may also see a UVA logo on a sunscreen bottle like this, which has been approved by the EU and is another way of saying that the product provides good balanced protection against both UVA and UVB.
From a practical viewpoint most sunscreens are now either 4 or 5 stars, or have a UVA logo, so the great majority of modern products are already providing balanced protection.
Any tips or guidelines for sunscreen application?
- Apply sunscreen liberally to exposed sites 15 to 30 minutes before going out into the sun.
- Don’t rub the sunscreen into your skin but spread the sunscreen as uniformly as possible over the surface of the skin and allow to dry.
- Re-apply sunscreen to exposed sites 15 to 30 minutes after sun exposure begins.
- Re-apply sunscreen after vigorous activity that could remove sunscreen, such as swimming, use of towel or excessive sweating.
How often should you re-apply the sun protection cream when riding?
Reapplying sunscreen is crucial. It can be easily wiped away, particularly if you are sweating. We would usually recommend reapplying every two hours, but if you are sweating heavily and wiping it away, then you will want to reapply more regularly still. A small bottle in your jersey pocket really isn’t much of an inconvenience.
It’s important to avoid being reliant on ‘all-day’ or ‘extended-wear’ sunscreens. In ideal circumstances these will last longer but can be wiped away like any normal sunscreen. If you think you’re protected and spend the whole day out cycling only to find that you missed a spot or wiped some away then you run the risk of damaging your skin.
Some cycling jerseys and skin suits are very lightweight and almost mesh like, will these provide any protection from the sun?
The amount of protection afforded by clothing varies massively and some high- performance cycling clothing, that prioritises weight, breathability and wicking, may provide insufficient protection, especially if you’re on your bike for several hours.
Whilst there are systems for identifying the sun protection factor of clothing, they are not in common use in the UK. However, in Australia it is common to find clothing displaying a swing tag such as this example, indicating the UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor).
If in doubt, then apply sunscreen all over. Sun damage through clothing can get very severe if the individual spends a great deal of time outside without realising that they are burning.
Any other areas to pay particular attention to?
For people who are going a little thin on top, there’s a risk of burning through the vents of your helmet. If putting sunscreen here isn’t practical, then you can wear a traditional casquette or a bandana under your helmet as a protective barrier against the sun.
Crisp tan lines are often seen by cyclists as badges of honour. Can tanning ever be safe?
Unfortunately, there isn’t really a safe way to get a tan. Tans are caused when you skin is damaged by the sun, it produces more melanin (skin pigment) to offer better protection in the future. That said, if you are cycling with sun protection you can still tan, and this is better than tanning without sun protection. It is particularly important to avoid sunburn, which is a sign of serious sun damage.
Have you any advice on how to deal with minor sunburn?
It’s best to remember that prevention is better than a cure, because when it comes to sunburn the ‘cure’ will only do so much, and the damage done to the skin can’t be reversed. Soothing moisturisers, such as calamine lotion, can help ease the pain of skin that is already sunburnt, and anti-inflammatories can help with the pain and redness – after that it’s a waiting game.
What signs of skin damage should riders be on the look out for?
The best way to check for skin cancer is to carry out regular skin examinations, ideally once a month. Early detection can help to reduce the risk of developing a larger, more serious skin cancer that may need extensive surgery or treatment.
You should be looking for:
- New skin lumps, spots, ulcers, scaly patches or moles that weren’t there before
- Marks (including moles) on the skin that have changed shape, colour, texture or size
- Sores that do not heal
- Any areas on the skin that are itchy, painful or bleed
If there are moles that you want to keep an eye on then it’s a good idea to take a picture of them, preferably with something, such as a coin, for scale. This will be a good reference point so that you can easily tell if there have been any changes.
If you are concerned about a mole then you should go see your GP about it.
This article has been written in collaboration with the British Association of Dermatologists, who will run their annual Sun Awareness Week from 6th to 12th May 2019. For more information please visit www.skinhealthinfo.org.uk.