Selle Anatomica
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Important Sunscreen Considerations for Cyclists

There are a lot of great reasons to make cycling your sport of choice. It offers countless benefits — physical, mental and social — that make it worthwhile. But one of those benefits comes with a distinct danger. 

Cycling gets you outside much more than other activities like it. That’s a huge plus, but it also brings far more sun exposure and, with it, a greater risk of skin cancer. We’ve explored this with longtime cycling coach Darryl MacKenzie before, and we’ve covered why sunscreen is essential for cyclists, along with some of the methods for using it effectively.

There’s more to say on the subject of sunscreen and cycling, though, and new developments have raised questions about which type is safest and most effective. Read on for more of Coach Darryl’s thoughts on how cyclists can get the most out of sunscreen.

Use Sunscreen Year-Round 

For a quick review, let’s consider just how much time a cyclist spends in the sun. Darryl estimates about an hour of exposure for every 10 miles of exposure. For many cyclists who ride 100 miles a week, that equates to more than 500 extra hours of sun exposure. Even in the winter or on cloudy days, when the sun is less intense and you cover more of your skin, that’s a lot of sunshine. 

The point? If you’re riding in daylight — winter or summer, cloudy or not — you need sunscreen. Several hours of winter sunshine on your skin can still do damage, so be sure that you’re applying it to your exposed areas consistently, no matter the season. Keep it handy for every ride, whether in your car or your cycling bag, but make sure it’s stowed away out of direct sunlight. 

That said, good clothing is even better than sunscreen. In the summer, Darryl favors using white, reflective arm covers to block out the sun and keep his arms from absorbing so much heat directly.

Make Sure It’s Strong Enough

Not all sunscreen provides equal protection, so it’s important to ensure you’re using the right product for the level of sun exposure you get on the bike. Although many dermatologists recommend SPF 15 protection for general daily use, that’s not sufficient for long hours on the bike.

At a bare minimum, you should use a broad-spectrum SPF 30 sunscreen for a full range of protection. The broad-spectrum part means it protects you from UVA and UVB rays, each of which can damage your skin in different ways. Using SPF 30 will protect you from 97% of UVB rays for 30 times longer than having no sunscreen. Darryl even recommends bumping it up to SPF 50 for 98% protection at 50 times the length. Beyond that, you’re not really getting much extra value out of your sunscreen.

If you put it on thick and cover all areas of your exposed skin well (extending under your sleeves and shorts), this should last you for a couple hours on the bike, possibly longer depending on how sensitive your skin is, how much you’re sweating, and how intense the sun is on a given day. 

Keep It out of Your Eyes 

Although it’s important to make sure you’re well covered, it is possible to overdo it on the bike. One spot, in particular, doesn’t really need sunscreen — and it may even be a hazard to put it there. Any guess as to where?

Your forehead. 

Your helmet provides enough shade above your eyes that sunscreen isn’t necessary in that spot. Plus, if you sweat at all, that sunscreen is only going to end up in your eyes, causing burning and irritation and making it difficult to see while you’re riding. 

So, skip your forehead when applying sunscreen before your ride. And, while you’re at it, make sure you wash your hands after application, as any accidental eye-rubbing is going to lead to eye irritation if you don’t. 

Consider Safer, More Effective Alternatives 

It seems like there’s always a scare about one sunscreen product or another, so it’s hard to know which warnings to take seriously. In recent years, some researchers have asked regulators to consider pulling many popular chemical sunscreens from the market because they include the active ingredient octocrylene. 

The real concern here, according to researchers, is the potential that products made with this chemical may include benzophenone, which is a suspected carcinogen that may also interfere with some hormones and reproductive organs. Ultimately, more research is needed, so the safety of these products is unclear.

At the very least, it’s smart to be aware of this issue and check sunscreen labels for octocrylene. Many include it, so it’s worth considering an alternative that Darryl has started using: mineral sunscreen. These products use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as an active ingredient, and these may even provide better protection as they create a barrier between your skin and the sun’s UV rays rather than soaking into your skin. 

Until recently, many people have avoided mineral sunscreens because they’ve left a ghostly white sheen on their skin, but newer products use tinting to reduce this effect. If you haven’t had a good experience with mineral sunscreen in the past, it may be worth another try. Darryl also recommends using a smaller amount, as a little dab goes a long way.

Check in With a Dermatologist

When you spend a lot of time in the sun, these protective measures are essential. But you shouldn’t rely solely on yourself to ensure you’re well protected. Coach Darryl checks in with his dermatologist every year, and he’s had several pre-cancerous spots removed so they don’t turn into problems down the road. This should be a regular practice for any serious cyclist. 

It’s a bonus if, like Darryl, you can find a dermatologist who’s also a cyclist and understands the type of sun exposure you regularly have when pedaling. That’s not essential, but take it if you can find it! As a cyclist, what’s most important is that you have a plan for ensuring sun safety.


Follow our blog for more tips on safety and everything cycling related every week. Plus, you can always find even more of Coach Darryl’s tips and insights at his website.

Photo by Kevin Benkenstein on Unsplash