The fresh air and joy of cycling along a forest or sidewalk are exhilarating. But, this simple pleasure of speed and blurred surroundings hides a dismal and unavoidable disadvantage of cycling — the sun.
Sunlight is excellent, but only in small doses. Too much sun and you’ll get badly burnt and suffer from heat stroke, and you’re at increased risk of getting skin cancer. When cycling, you’re exposed to a lot of sunlight and may not notice it until it’s too late. You may ask, “How can I protect myself from the sun while cycling?” And the answer is simple, choose a time, dress the part, and apply SPF.
Why You Always Need Sun Protection When Cycling
Deceived by a cold wind or a cloudy sky, most people don’t think of protecting themselves from the sun during the winter or when it’s cloudy outside. Despite the weather, exposure to sunlight will still cause harm without proper protection.
In fact, some studies have found that UVB radiation can be more intense when there is a combination of hazy or cloudy conditions and snow or sand on the ground as these surfaces reflect more UVB back into the atmosphere.
The reddening and subsequent browning of your skin after extended sun exposure is the skin cells’ defense strategy. It loads itself full of melanin to prevent further damage from occurring, which means your skin is already facing a lot of damage by the point you can see reddening.
A tan might be fun, but too much sun exposure leads to premature skin aging and may cause cancer.
Don’t Cycle In The Heat Of The Day
The first step in combatting severe sun exposure, and all it comes with, is choosing the right time of day to cycle. Cycling outside the 11 am to 3 pm bracket is best for avoiding sun damage as there is less UV exposure, and it will also not be as hot.
This time bracket is easy for some to match, but if your schedule makes it so cycling at midday is easiest for you, stick to shaded areas as much as possible. Unfortunately, staying out of the sun isn’t always manageable, but there are other precautions to be safe from the sun’s radiation while cycling.
Dressing For Sun Protection While Cycling
While changing the time of a ride may not be within your power, especially if you’re cycling in an event or a race, you can take steps to ensure preparation for all that lies ahead by wearing appropriate clothing and having sun protection in place.
The clothes you wear on your ride will be the first line of defense against ultraviolet light. I like to focus on keeping my back and neck covered, as these areas are most exposed to the sun when I bend over my bicycle.
There are several ways to dress and accessorize for sun protection when cycling.
- Wear a cap or hat.
- UV sunglasses help to protect your eyes.
- Invest in UPF clothing.
Wear A Cycling Cap
Cycling caps were rather popular in the mid-1900s and lost favor when wearing helmets became mandatory in the early 2000s. At the height of their popularity, they served as a means to show off sponsors and offer sun protection.
Bicycle helmets are essential for safety and ensure that your head is safe and sound should you fall off your bike or get into an accident. However, bicycle helmets have holes to ensure your head stays cool while the sun attempts to bake you from above, which does away with one of the cap’s more valuable functions.
The downside to the helmet is that the sun now has a direct line of access to your head. If you’re fortunate enough to have a full head of hair, these holes pose little threat, but burning your scalp is still no happy occasion.
Bicycle helmets also don’t offer much face protection. Wearing a cycling cap under a helmet helps keep sweat from trickling into your eyes, the sun from scorching your head and face, and even offers extra warmth in the colder months. The small peak of the cap is great for fending off the sun’s glare.
Cycling caps are a thin, light layer that fits nicely under helmets. Some caps even have additional material on the back to protect your neck. The best materials to consider for breathability are synthetics, although you might consider a wool cap for winter.
Cycling in full sun or total downpour, cycling sunglasses are essential for eye protection. The glasses keep away insects, dust, and keep your eyes from watering from the wind. Most importantly, they block 100% of UV and will protect your eyes from sun damage.
When looking for a good pair of sunglasses for cycling, make sure they’re comfortable, strong, work well for your eyes, and are fashionable.
My tip is to always bring your helmet when choosing sunglasses because some don’t work well and look good together.
While there is nothing wrong with wearing regular sunglasses for a casual bike ride, investing in some quality cycling glasses can only be beneficial. Cycling sunglasses are normally bigger than regular sunglasses because cyclists need more protective surface area while going at a high speed. Some cycling sunglasses also have minimal frames to not hinder your vision.
Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) describes how much UV light gets let through a given object. Clothes with higher UPF ratings, like UPF 50, will provide a better barrier between harmful radiation and your skin than a UPF 30.
The Skin Cancer Foundation recommends any clothing with a rating above UPF 30. Always look for the UPF rating whenever you are shopping for cycling jerseys.
What to consider when buying UPF clothing for cycling:
- Dark colors absorb UV light and stop it from reaching your skin better than light colors.
- Cycling jerseys with breathable mesh are nice but usually have a lower UPF rating. Make sure the back part of the jersey is not made of big mesh fabric.
- Glossy polyesters contain natural UV reflective and absorbing capabilities.
- Too tight clothing can stretch the weave of a garment and leave gaps for UV to penetrate it. So, consider wearing a cycling base layer if you prefer tight clothing for aero.
- More coverage is better coverage.
- Wet fabrics may become transparent and lose their UV protection. For ultra-distance cycling, it’s a good idea to bring spare clothing.
Wear Sun Protection Clothing
Many sports stores specifically manufacture clothing for sun protection. UPF sportswear like arm sleeves, leg sleeves, and buffs are easily bought online or in active wear sections at the store.
Wearing sleeves and buffs during the summer may look hot, but they are actually more comfortable because your skin is protected from the scorching sun.
Polyester and nylon materials will give better sun protection than cotton, and they are also better at sweat-wicking.
In the summer, fingerless gloves will protect your hands from the sun. Fingers don’t usually get sunburnt, so full gloves are unnecessary.
Choosing A Sunscreen For Cycling
Some say sunscreens are only for weak people, but the fact is everyone is weak against the sun.
Sunscreen is essential for body parts unprotected by clothing and exposed to the sun, it is your last line of defense when cycling. For example, if you don’t wear leg sleeves, then you have to use sunscreen on your legs. It is also recommended to wear sunscreen if you wear a lightweight “climbing” jersey since they don’t give enough sun protection.
Using a higher SPF or PA with more pluses (PA+++) sunscreen is always better, especially when cycling for hours in the sun. Plus, you have to reapply sunscreen every two hours you are under the sunlight.
Notes to ponder when choosing a good SPF for cycling:
- Some sunscreens only protect you against UVA and not UVB. UVB doesn’t penetrate your skin as deep as UVA, but can still cause sunburn and skin cancer.
- Note that even high SPF creams do not make you completely sunproof. You should reapply your sunscreen at least every two hours for maximum protection.
- Cycling is sweaty work. Between the sun and the moisture, all your protection can drip away. Buy a sweat-resistant sunscreen made specifically for working out.
- Mineral sunscreens are safer but thicker and might stain your cycling gear, but chemical sunscreens have smoother applications and contain trace amounts of harmful chemicals.
- Spray sunscreens are easier to apply but the layer of protection won’t be as thick as cream sunscreens.
- Because reapplication is so essential, carry a small tube of sunscreen with you on your bike ride longer than 2 hours. Make sure it is enough to retouch any exposed skin.
- Before reapplying sunscreen during a ride, wipe away as much excess moisture and grit from the skin as possible to allow the new coating of SPF to be evenly and effectively applied.
- Always apply your sunscreen up to 15 minutes before starting your ride to give your skin a chance to absorb them.
- Don’t apply sunscreen on your forehead. Sweat mixed with sunscreen might irritate your eyes and makes it impossible to see the road for a while. Your forehead should get enough protection from the helmet or cycling cap.
Preventing Heatstroke and Heat Exhaustion When Cycling
Your sun protection layers and sunscreens can’t fully protect you from heatstroke because it’s more about temperature than UV. When exposed to hot temperatures for too long, the body’s normal processes can become impaired, leading to an increased risk of heat exhaustion and heatstroke.
To prevent heat-related stress when cycling, it is important to always stay hydrated and lower your cycling intensity.
If you’re not in a cycling event or a race, you should take frequent breaks in shady areas and avoid exerting yourself too much in the direct sunlight. But if you are going to race in the heat of the summer, then you should do some heat acclimation training for at least 10 days prior to the race.
If you have excess water in your bidon, you can pour them onto your head and neck to help your body cool down.
Some articles out there recommend wearing bright-colored clothing to reflect sunlight and makes your body temperature lower. While this is true for solid surfaces like your water bottle (water in white bidons does in fact stay cooler under the sun than in black bidons), it is not the same with thin mesh fabric surfaces of your clothing. Bright-colored clothing actually has a lower UPF rating and will pass through more sunlight to your skin than dark-colored clothing.