I’ve made a resolution to stop getting sunburned. Not only will this be better for my overall health, but I can gracefully evolve into a MAMIL (middle-aged man in lycra) without my skin turning into wrinkled leather. So I think a lot about sunscreen.
There are a lot of sun protection options, but what sunscreen works best for cycling? Here’s what I’ve learned about sun protection, and the best sunscreens that I’ve tested on my mid-summer rides.
Chemical vs. mineral sunscreens
Sunscreen comes in two flavors: chemical and mineral. They both protect you from harmful rays but accomplish it in different ways.
Chemical sunscreens work like a sponge, absorbing the sun’s rays and converting them into heat. Chemical sunscreens use oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, or octinoxate.
Mineral sunscreens stay on the surface of your skin like a shield, deflecting rays. Mineral sunscreens will use titanium dioxide, zinc oxide, or a combination of both.
Chemical sunscreens are much easier to rub into your skin. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, tend to be thicker and will leave a white residue on your skin. This white residue can also transfer to your cycling kit, especially if it’s black, and parts of your bike like bar tape or grips.
Mineral sunscreens are extremely popular because there are some concerns that your skin absorbs the chemicals found in other sunscreens. (There is some concern that we can also absorb titanium dioxide and zinc oxide nanoparticles, but it’s unlikely.)
Are chemical sunscreens safe?
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) hasn’t labeled chemical sunscreen unsafe but it has proposed a rule to update the regulatory requirements. Part of this proposed rule aims to gather more safety information on the active chemical ingredients.
A clinical trial published in the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) revealed that four common sunscreen chemicals — avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule — are absorbed into the bloodstream at surprisingly high levels. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) cautions against using sunscreen with oxybenzone because of concerns that it may disrupt hormones and cause allergic reactions. Oxybenzone also damages coral reefs so triathletes swimming in the ocean should always check that their sunscreen is reef-safe.
So are chemical sunscreens are unsafe? Not exactly. The authors of the JAMA study say more research is needed and that their findings don’t indicate chemical sunscreen is unsafe. Also, chemical sunscreens have been in use for decades and there is little evidence of any long-term effects. Still, plenty of people would rather be safe than sorry. Ultimately, the health risks of sun exposure outweigh the potential risks of absorbing sunscreen chemicals.
Sunscreen tips for cyclists
Go ahead and sunbathe. As long as your skin's protected!
Here are my basic sunscreen rules.1. Apply at least 15 minutes before sun exposure.
2. Use an SPF 30 or greater, water-resistant, broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects from UVA and UVB rays.
3. Reapply every 2-3 hours.
Mineral sunscreens are much easier to rub in if your skin is well-moisturized. Dry skin always creates a nasty film. Also, rather than slathering it on, start with small dabs and slowly add more. I apply before putting on my kit then wash my hands so I don’t get white residue all over my bibs and bike. Just know you’ll never completely get rid of the white residue, so embrace it. It means you’re protected!
I have found chemical sunscreens to be more water-resistant than mineral sunscreens. I can get away with not reapplying chemical sunscreen for an extra hour or so, but if I’m not diligent with reapplying mineral sunscreen my face will quickly turn beet red.
My favorite cycling sunscreens
I currently prefer mineral sunscreens. I’ve tried several brands and keep coming back to Blue Lizard because it works well, is fairly water-resistant, and is also highly rated by the EWG. Recently, I’ve also been stealing my son’s Babyganics sunscreen. It’s one of the easier mineral sunscreens to rub in, probably because kids are so wriggly. Then I have some Zelios Sun Barrier that I save for my biggest rides. It’s formulated for endurance sports and is the most water-resistant mineral sunscreen I’ve used.
To reapply during a ride, I carry a small mineral sunscreen stick. I’m usually covered with sweat and grit, so a quick swipe makes reapplying clean and easy. I literally buy any small sunscreen stick available. Right now I use a Sun Bum stick I got in a swag bag.
Sun Bum Mineral Sunscreen Face Stick - $11.99
I keep chemical sunscreen in my car just in case. I find chemical sunscreen doesn’t dry out or get thick and pasty in my hot car. I use Coppertone Sport because it’s extremely water-resistant and it leaves absolutely no residue on my spotless car interior. If you want something oxybenzone-free, Neutrogena makes a good, but expensive option.
What about cycling sun sleeves?
Sun sleeves (and sun knees) are great! If you don’t feel too hot while wearing them, they’re superior to sunscreen because they physically block the sun. They’re also effective at preventing the classic cyclist tan if that’s important to you. Instead of generic sun sleeves, buy sleeves made by cycling apparel companies. They’re shaped for the riding position and have silicone grippers to keep them from sliding down.
Sun protection is also a great excuse to wear a cycling cap under your helmet. Adding a brim to my kit helps keep my nose the same color as the rest of my face.
No matter what you choose, make applying sunscreen a habit, and do everything you can to protect yourself from the sun. Your skin will thank you!
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