If you really want the truth, it’s a total cover up.
It’s the first warm day of the year, you emerge from the cover of winter and send a solar glare up into the atmosphere once sunlight bounces off your sunless skin. Bare legs and arms that haven’t seen daylight since the previous year are instantly at higher risk for damage from sunlight exposure. Sunburn can develop in two phases: the first involves a reddening of the skin when directly exposed to sunlight; the second can develop a few hours after exposure. Both can range from uncomfortable to painful and are best avoided by applying proper sun protection on the bike.
To avoid sunburn, the main goal is to protect exposed skin, which for cyclists includes arms, legs, face, neck, ears, and hands. Skin that suffers prolonged exposure is at the highest risk for burning. For a cyclist this includes the back of the neck, and the tops of the ears and the hands, either with or without gloves. The most effective way to protect those areas is to cover them up but who wants to do that when you’ve waited all year to peel off the layers, not keep them on? Instead, sport-specific sunscreen creams or sprays with at least a sun protection factor (SPF) of 15, which won’t slide off your skin the minute you start to sweat, will yield the best results. What’s even more effective is to apply sunscreen in advance of exposure to sunlight and then reapply every 60-90 minutes to keep your skin protected. Sunblock — as the name suggests — blocks the sun’s damaging rays from reaching the skin.
Developments in cycling clothing have produced jerseys with a high Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF), which is a rating of the garment’s ability to block ultraviolet rays from reaching your skin. Fortunately many common synthetic materials used for cycling jerseys, like Lycra and polyester, already have a high UPF rating but don’t get hung up on that number since it varies from country to country. A lightweight jersey with a tight weave that fits comfortably (not too tight or too loose) is your best bet any day.
Frequent sips from your water bottle and snacking on salty foods can strip away your lips’ natural defenses, which can leave them vulnerable to sunburn. Lip balm with SPF 15 or lip block both work to seal in moisture and shut out the sun. Reapply lip balm or lip block frequently, especially after drinking or snacking, in order to maintain an optimal level of protection for your lips.
Avoid eye damage from sun exposure by choosing cycling-specific eyewear. Cycling glasses should be rimless and fog-proof to promote drainage of sweat condensation. Most importantly, your cycling glasses should feature UVR-blocking lenses.
Some helmets are available with detachable visors, which will provide shade at certain angles so it’s best to back that up with a liberal application of sunscreen or sunblock. Visors are especially practical in winter, when most everything else is covered except for the face. When the temperature doesn’t feel like you’ll suffer from sun exposure, that’s when you’re most prone to burning so even if you forget to apply sunscreen or sunblock, a visor will at least provide some protection.
Protecting yourself from the sun will also prevent your next ride from feeling like your skin is on fire. This is especially critical on a bike trip when it’s not the first day that could suck, but every consequent day after that if you don’t take good care of your skin. This includes proper nutrition and hydration, and making sure you shield yourself from the sun.