At some point, most of us have come back from a long, hot summer ride having spent too much time in the sun. The resulting red patches of skin are sunburn, and they’re not only sometimes painful but also can increase your risk of skin cancer. So we did some research and talked to leading experts to identify the best sunscreens for cyclists to protect your skin on future rides.
What to Look For
Mitchel Goldman, MD, is a bike-racing dermatologist who is clear about what you should look for in sun protection. “For athletes, the most important thing is that it is sweat and water proof,” he says.
Physical vs. Chemical
There are two types of sunscreen, according to Dr. Goldman. Physical sunscreens contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and provide a physical barrier on the skin. They do not penetrate to reach living skin cells or the bloodstream. The other type, chemical sunscreens, use avobenzone and are absorbed into the skin. Goldman prefers the chemical type because they don’t leave a coating of white film from the zinc oxide.
Sonya Lunder, a senior research analyst at the Environmental Working Group who has studied sunscreens suggests that any sunscreen with more than three percent zinc oxide or avobenzone is ok, but notes that physical sunscreens are less likely to contain ingredients such as oxybenzone, which can cause allergic skin reactions.
Which SPF Is Best for Cyclists?
Lunder says that sunscreens listing an SPF over 50 don’t seem to be worth the upcharge. “The extra protection is negligible. An SPF 50 sunscreen that is properly applied will block 98 percent of UVB rays; a SPF 100 sunscreen will block 99 percent.” Rather than buying a higher SPF, Lunder suggests applying more of a 30 to 50 SPF product every two hours.
U.S. vs. Europe
Most sunscreens sold in the Unites States use just one of two active ingredients, zinc oxide in physical sunscreens and avobenzone in chemical products. (Although there are a total of eight active ingredients approved by the FDA, no new ones have been approved since 1996). Europe seems more progressive. The EU and Britain have approved four additional active ingredients since 2003 (Tinosorb S, Tinosorb M, Mexoryl SX and Mexoryl XL), which the Environmental Working Group believes offer superior protection. “In the United States, only two ingredients offer strong UVA protection,” says Lunder. So, if you find yourself on vacation abroad this summer, it might be time to stock up!
Dr. Goldman suggests applying sunscreen to all exposed skin about 15 minutes before every ride. Remember also that you can get significant sunburn through modern lightweight kits, so it’s a good idea to apply to your back, shoulders, thighs and other areas if you’ll be exposed to sunlight for a long period of time. Erring on the side of over application is always a good bet.
Sweat enough, and you’ll eventually need to reapply your sunscreen. Likewise, if you ride often, you’ll go through more sunscreen. So it’s best to pick a sunscreen that you can afford use often—even if it means stopping to reapply once or twice during a long ride. Both experts prefer gels or lotion over spray-on options. Aerosols protect just as well, they say, but they can be more challenging to apply evenly, are easier to sweat off, and require extra care not to breathe in the spray.
We’ve sweated and slathered our way through quite a few sunscreens, and these are some of our favorites that you can get shipped straight to your door in the U.S. Order one of these, and the only burn you’ll feel on your next ride will be in your legs.
This handy little container of premium sunscreen is great for stowing in a saddlebag or pocket to reapply during those long summer rides. It’s a physical sunscreen that uses Zinc Oxide as its active ingredient—something that may be useful for those who find chemical sunscreens irritating. The 80-minute water-resistance rating on this product is not only a testament to the surfing heritage of its San Diego-based maker, but is also the longest working time the FDA will allow manufacturers to claim for a sunscreen. We didn’t notice any of the white film that we associate with physical sunscreens, making this a great pick for those who prefer to use a physical sun barrier. The SunBum gel smells like a drink that belongs in a hollowed out pineapple with a tiny umbrella, so it might not work well for those who don’t like strong odors.
Our value pick costs only $13 for 16 ounces, and it does a great job of leaving a dry film with no greasy layer. With 80 minutes of water resistance and no added fragrances, it has yet to make our eyes sting or our skin turn white on long hot rides. Most of us aren’t using enough sunscreen—sometimes due to cost—but a more affordable product makes it easier to use more. The only downside is that the bottle is cumbersome, but at this price, you use the spare cash to buy a smaller container that fits in your pocket for mid-ride top-offs.
We know gels or lotions are best but sometimes you’re rushing out of the door to make the Saturday group ride and the best you can do is a two-minute spray. That’s still a lot better than not using sunscreen at all. Coola’s Oxybenzone-free, mostly organic, chemical sunscreen spray is made in San Diego and comes in not one but two cocktail-inspired scents. This sunscreen is only rated for 40 minutes of water resistance rather than 80 minutes (which would net it the “waterproof” tag) so be sure to reapply if you’re spending a day by the beach or pool.
This product is the closest alternative to the one that Dr. Goldman purchases from Spain. It absorbs well and leaves a dry film which is preferable to the greasy feeling of some sunscreens. It also doesn’t sting your eyes when you sweat, which is useful on hot summer rides. It’s not cheap, but it feels pleasant to use, and it didn’t dry out our skin as much as other products.