Sunburn and Cycling: the Dos and Don’ts

Sunburn and Cycling: the Dos and Don’ts

Cyclists love a sharp tan line but, as any dermatologist will tell you, there is no such thing as a ‘safe’ tan. If your skin is tanning, it is also getting damaged. Long hours outside on your bike ensure you will get a lot of sun exposure, so take precautions and take care of your skin.

Riding your bike in hot weather means lots of skin exposed to the sun. Your cycling position means that the back of your neck, thighs, legs, hands and forearms are particularly vulnerable, and as you are constantly moving there is no chance of remaining in the shade for very long.

Here are some ways to protect your skin, and if you do get burned some steps to help your skin heal more quickly.

What is sunburn and how do you get it?

Redness and itchy peeling skin is caused by exposure to the sun, specifically ultra-violet rays. There are two types of ultraviolet rays that penetrate your skin, UVA and UVB. Sunburn is the most obvious and extreme sign of too much sun exposure, but under the surface of your skin ultraviolet light can alter your DNA, prematurely aging your skin. Over time DNA damage can contribute to skin cancers, including melanoma.

Plan your ride time

The best way to avoid sunburn is to not be outside when UV levels are high. Generally, this means avoiding riding between 11am-3pm on very hot sunny days. You can check the amount of UV for your area and discover the best times to ride by using the World UV App, designed by the British Association of Dermatologists  (BAD). Download the Apple iOS version of the app here and download the Android version of the app here.

Use SPF

If you have to ride when there is high UV, the next step is to protect your skin with sunscreens and clothing. You can buy very lightweight cycling kit designed for hot weather that will allow you to cover up and still stay cool. For example, these white arm covers offer high protection from the sun without causing you to overheat.

If you prefer the feel of bare skin then you need to slap on the sun protection. Sunscreens in the UK are labelled with ‘SPF’ – this stands for ‘sun protection factor’, although the SPF is more accurately the sun burn protection factor, as it primarily shows the level of protection against UVB, not the protection against UVA.

SPFs are rated on a scale of 6-50+ based on the level of protection they offer, with ratings between 6-14 forming the least protected end of the spectrum and ratings of 50+ offering the strongest forms of UVB protection. The British Association of Dermatologists recommend a sunscreen with an SPF of 30 as a satisfactory form of sun protection in addition to protective shade and clothing.

It’s important to choose sunscreens that offer both UVA and UVB protection, sometimes called ‘broad spectrum’. A sunscreen with an SPF of 30 and a UVA rating of 4 or 5 stars is generally considered as a good standard of sun protection in addition to shade and clothing.

Apply liberally

Studies have found that most people apply less than half of the amount required to provide the level of protection indicated on the packaging. Areas such as the back and sides of the neck, temples and ears are commonly missed, so you need to apply it generously and be careful not to miss patches. Think about your position when cycling and make sure you put sun cream under the edges of your shorts or jersey sleeves as they move while you ride, leaving skin exposed.

If you do get sunburn?

However careful you are it is easy to miss a patch when putting on sun cream, or to stay out longer than you expected. If you do burn, follow these steps to help it heal:

  1. Cool down

If your skin is hot to the touch your first step is to take some heat out. Cool water compresses, or having a cool bath or shower, will help you feel more comfortable. Avoid very cold water as that can send your body into shock. If your body is feeling hot be watchful of symptoms of sunstroke and make sure you stay hydrated.

  1. Reduce the itching and burning

There are loads of after sun creams and lotions on the market, but not much works better than natural aloe vera gel. You can buy this in most health food shops or, if you keep aloe vera houseplants, cut a leaf and split it open to squeeze the gel directly on to your skin. For extra effectiveness and rapid cooling chill your after sun in the fridge before application. Do not use petroleum jelly, such as Vaseline – the oil keeps the heat in the skin instead of cooling it.

We all love cycling in the sunshine but protecting your skin and future health is more important than those crisp cycling tan lines. Visit our other blogs for more tips and advice.