I have a love-hate relationship with my cyclist tan. On the one hand, finish a ride and swap your kit for a tank top and shorts and you'll feel super badass. Tanlines that are dark and crisp suggest you live on the bike, and any time spent outside is in kit. While that might be the case for many of us, it’s not necessarily by choice! Busy lives mean you might have to sneak in your rides when you can and that doesn't leave a ton of time for lying out by the pool balancing the rest of your body to the same dark tan as your forearms. 

Plus, if you listen to your mother (and every other skin authority out there), you'll know that tans are bad for you. You should be applying sunscreen every 2 hours when out in the direct rays, and staying covered at all other times. But really, who brings SPF on their rides? I can count the number of times I've remembered my travel sunscreen on one hand and if I do, do I really want to be rubbing my dirty bike hands into my face? Seems like a recipe for disaster for sensitive skin.

However, sun exposure has been a non-stop topic around the office these days and since knowledge is power, I decided to do a little research on the subject. If you've ever had questions about SPF and your daily ride, look no further. 

If you avoid sunburns by using sunscreen but still end up with a tan, are you still in danger of skin damage?

Yes. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, there’s no such thing as a safe tan. To get all science-y about it, your skin’s tan is nothing more than a reaction to damage to your skin cells. If there’s tan, there’s damage. The danger of skin cancer occurs with the accumulation of damaged cells. That’s why the dangers are cumulative – you don’t get a free pass with the change of the seasons. Rather, every tan and sunburn since childhood increases your danger of skin cancer as an adult.

How does sun protective clothing compare to sunscreen?

While no authorities will come out and say that one is more or less effective than the other, it’s clear that sunscreen alone is not the most reliable source of sun protection. For one, most people don’t use enough for it to be effective. The AAD recommends using 1 ounce: to put that in margarita-terms, it’s equal to a shot glass full of sunscreen for the exposed parts of your body. Most of us (myself included) use a small squirt in the hand – basically as little as possible to eliminate that whitecast look. Further, in order for sunscreen to be effective it needs to be applied every 2 hours or more frequently if skin is exposed to water or sweat. The chances of forgetting to reapply are too high to consider sunscreen adequate protection.

Clothing, on the other hand, provides a visible barrier to the sun. It's crystal clear whether you are protected or not without having to worry about time spent or whether you've sweat. 

What type of damage are we risking besides the big ones like skin cancer and wrinkles?

Skin cancer is the most common danger of sun exposure and it’s also the most common cancer. According to the Skin Cancer Foundation, more people have had skin cancer over the past 3 decades than all other types of cancers combined.

Photo-aging is the umbrella term for the visible effects of sun damage. This can take the form of wrinkles, sagging skin, a leather-like texture and hyperpigmentation (or brown spots). For cyclists who spend upwards of 10 hours per week outside, these dangers are very real.

What about when it’s cloudy?

My mom definitely told me this as a kid, but it turns out she was right. UVA rays especially (those are the more dangerous ones) can cut right through fog and clouds. As much as 80% of the potential UV-radiation of the sun are still present even when it’s not sunny.

Plus, shoutout to all the climbers out there, radiation levels increase by about 5% for every 1000 feet of altitude. So even if it’s chilly at the top of the mountain you are still at risk for sun damage.

How about breakouts? Will sunscreen and sweat cause them, or reapplying sunscreen with dirty hands mid-ride?

It’s true that the chemicals in sunscreen can be aggravating to some sensitive skin. The AAD suggests that the discomfort of a temporary breakout is less painful than a lifetime of skin cancer, but since I’m vain I dug a little deeper here. It’s a lot of trial and error when it comes to finding out what cocktail of ingredients work best for your unique skin-type, with oil-free or alcohol-free options working better for some. However, it’s pretty much universally acknowledged that physical sunscreens (as opposed to chemical) are the least likely to bother acne-prone skin. Natural options with a physical sunscreen like Zinc Oxide are great, but usually accompanied by a thick white cast that isn’t the most appealing.

As far as dirty hands go, they can definitely help spread breakout-causing bacteria to the face. However again, this is a situation where the benefit outweighs the risk. Here I would sing the praises of caps and big eyewear (Jawbreakers, anyone?) since they can minimize the reach of the sun on your face.

Whenever I reapply sunscreen mid-ride, it never seems to be as effective as the first application?  Why is that?

This question took some real investigation. It turns out, sunscreen must be applied to dry, clean skin in order to work correctly. Halfway through a ride you are sweaty and maybe a little dirty, making it harder for the sunscreen to work effectively. Plus, sunscreen takes about 15-30 minutes to start working. This means that if you were a little late on reapplying, coupled with the time it takes for sunscreen to activate, there is a window of time in which you weren’t protected at all.

Don’t forget the hair!

If you’ve ever noticed your hair becoming brassy (especially if it’s colored), it could be from sun damage. There are plenty of hair sunscreen products on the market, but I’d stick with a good old fashioned cap to protect your scalp and hair.

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The moral of this story is that everything you’ve heard about wearing sunscreen is true and not some myth engineered to inconvenience you. We know that we should be wearing sunscreen at all times, but it isn't always easy between forgetting to reapply mid-ride and finding the best type that works for your skin. Many a group ride convo has centered around the best sunscreen tips from one rider to another. That's why we're so excited to be launching our newest product in sun protection, the UV.You Sleeves. In addition to the SPF 50 contained in our jersey material, the sleeves extend that protection to your arms and make it easier to stay protected from the sun (and from unsightly tan lines). So we can all feel good about long summer rides without worrying about sun damage. 

Images by Tracy Chandler