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Cycling Sunscreen Buying Guide: What to Look for & Top Brands

April 11, 2019


Cycling Sunscreen Buying Guide: What to Look for & Top Brands

In this guide, we’ll walk you through why sunscreen matters when you’re cycling, how it works, the best way to apply, and how the competition compares—all so you can maximize your money.

Cycling is blissful.

But, based on the sheer amount of time you spend outside, it’s ultra-important that you protect your skin by slathering on sunscreen every time you roll out. Otherwise, you can accumulate lasting damage that leads to serious long-term health consequences.

In this brief guide, we’ll discuss the basics behind the sun’s rays, how they can affect your body, and how sunscreen helps prevent these changes from occurring, followed by some of our top picks on Amazon.

First, though, let’s begin on a positive note.

Is Sun Exposure Always Bad for Your Health?

Mark Nathaniel Mead, MSc, is an integrative oncology consultant, nutritionist, and author in the Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina area.

In a 2008 article published in the National Institutes of Health’s Environmental Health Perspectives, he points out, “The best-known benefit of sunlight is its ability to boost the body’s vitamin D supply,” which regulates “at least 1,000 different genes governing virtually every tissue in the body.”

These include “several involved in calcium metabolism and neuromuscular and immune system functioning,” he says. The article also indicates that sufficient vitamin D levels could potentially impact diabetes and hypertension, and provide “protection against other illnesses such as rheumatoid arthritis (RA), asthma, and infectious diseases.”

According to Healthline, “in the UK, 13 minutes of midday sunlight exposure during summer three times per week is enough to maintain healthy levels among Caucasian adults.”

Interviewed for U.S. News, Dr. Michael Holick, a professor of medicine, physiology, and biophysics at the Boston University Medical Campus, adds, “Allow 10 to 15 minutes or so of unprotected sun exposure to your arms, legs, abdomen, and back. After that, follow up with good sun protection.”

We’ll talk more about what “good” sun protection means in a moment. For now, let’s take a look at what happens if you regularly expose your unprotected skin to the sun’s rays for longer periods than recommended.

Sun Exposure Hazards: Why Should You Wear Sunscreen When Cycling?

The American Society of Clinical Oncology explains that the leading cause of skin cancer is exposure to the ultraviolet radiation found in sunlight.

Specifically, the Skin Cancer Foundation states, “about 90 percent of non-melanoma skin cancers and about 86 percent of melanomas are associated with exposure to UV radiation from the sun.”

Not all UV rays are the same, though—there are three types: ultraviolet A (UV-A), ultraviolet B (UV-B), and ultraviolet C (UV-C), and each affects your body in different ways.

Ultraviolet A (UV-A) Radiation

The World Health Organization explains that UV-A radiation—which accounts for 95% of all UV rays that reaches the earth’s surface—features the longest wavelength, so “it can penetrate into the deeper layers of the skin.”

As a result, it’s “responsible for the immediate tanning effect,” they add. Just what is this bronzing phenomena, though?

In a nutshell, once UV-A radiation damages your cells, your body increases production of a pigment called melanin, which darkens your skin to enhance its sun protection factor, or SPF (more soon).

As a result of this damage, the Centers for Disease Control emphasizes, “Every time you tan, you increase your risk of getting skin cancer.” Specifically, “melanoma (the deadliest type of skin cancer), basal cell carcinoma, and squamous cell carcinoma.”

This might lead you to conclude that if you have darker skin, you can worry less about burning, skin damage, and increased cancer risk than those with lighter pigmentation.

However, the American Academy of Dermatology emphasizes, “even if you have naturally dark skin or never burn and always tan, that still means the sun is damaging your skin. And you can still get skin cancer and wrinkles some day.”

Ultraviolet B (UV-B) & Ultraviolet C (UV-C) Radiation

Comparatively, UV-B radiation—most of which is filtered by the earth’s atmosphere—doesn’t pass through glass and can’t penetrate beyond the outer layers of your skin.

Still, UV-B radiation is biologically active, so it can cause “delayed tanning and burning,” enhance skin aging, and “significantly promote the development of skin cancer,” according to the WHO. This remains the case even on cloudy days.

UV-C radiation features the shortest wavelength and therefore can cause the most potential damage, although it “does not reach the earth’s surface,” the WHO reports.

Given these details, how does sunscreen protect your skin against ultraviolet radiation while you’re spinning your wheels?

How Sunscreen Works When You’re Cycling

To help protect your skin against the damaging effects of UV-A and UV-B radiation, the Library of Congress’s Science Reference Services explains that sunscreen uses “inorganic ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium oxide [to] reflect or scatter ultraviolet (UV) radiation.”

Because “these ingredients sit atop the skin,” clarifies Piedmont Healthcare dermatologist and Mohs surgeon David Harvey, M.D., they “are classified as “physical.”

On the other hand, “organic ingredients like octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) or oxybenzone absorb UV radiation,” the LOC tell us, “dissipating it as heat.”

Harvey adds avobenzone to this ingredients list and classifies them as “chemical sunscreens,” since they seep “into the skin and then absorb UV rays, convert the rays into heat, and release them from the body.”

Physical vs. Chemical Sunscreens
  How it Works Common Ingredients
Physical Sits on top of the skin and reflects/scatters UV radiation Zinc oxide, Titanium oxide
Chemical Seeps into the skin, absorbs UV radiation, and dissipates it as heat Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), Oxybenzone

Remember: Sunscreen Isn’t a Sun Shield

With these details in mind, the Cancer Council NSW emphasizes that sunscreen is just that—a screen. It doesn’t completely block all UV rays from reaching your skin.

How much UV radiation a formulation allows to pass through is measured sun protection factor (SPF)—the higher the number, the greater protection it provides.

“An SPF of 30 allows one-thirtieth or 3.3% of UV to reach your skin,” they explain. “This means it filters 96.7% of UV. With an SPF of 50, 98% is filtered, and one-fiftieth or 2% gets through.” What does this mean in real-world terms?

“If your unprotected skin would take ten minutes to show signs of burning,” they say, “then properly applying SPF 30 sunscreen would slow the rate of burning to the point where it would take 30 times longer or 300 minutes in total. SPF 15 would take 150 minutes, while SPF 50, 500 minutes.”

The fact of the matter is that if you don’t apply appropriately before heading out the door, though, you can significantly reduce your sunscreen’s sun protection factor.

How to Apply Sunscreen Before Cycling?

The American Society of Clinical Oncology recommends you apply at least one ounce of sunscreen to your skin—“enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass,” they explain—15 to 30 minutes before heading out, which allows sufficient time for it to absorb and provide maximum protection. Shake well beforehand to make sure the formula is sufficiently mixed.

When it comes to cycling, pay close attention to your lips, the back of your neck, the front and back of your ears, the tops of your knees and sides of your calves. Don’t forget the top of your head, which might be especially susceptible if you have bald patches or don’t wear a hat when you ride.

Afterward, you should reapply sunscreen to your body every two hours during normal activities, regardless of the time of year. This decreases to every hour “if you are swimming or sweating,” the ASCO says.

How can you start on the right foot and choose the best formula for your needs?

Tips for Choosing the Best Cycling Sunscreen

Waterproof vs. Water Resistant

Because you sweat when you bike, WebMD recommends focusing on waterproof brands with non-stinging ingredients formulated for your face.

According to the American Cancer Society, though, No sunscreens are waterproof or “sweatproof,” and manufacturers are not allowed to claim that they are.”

“If a product’s front label makes claims of being water resistant,” they explain, “it must specify whether it lasts for 40 minutes or 80 minutes while swimming or sweating.”

For best results, the ACS recommends reapplying “sunscreen at least every 2 hours and even more often if you are swimming or sweating. Sunscreen usually rubs off when you towel yourself dry, so you will need to put more on,” they clarify.

Cycling Through the Numbers: Is Higher SPF Necessarily Better?

Strength-wise, “pick a broad-spectrum sunscreen that protects against UV-A and UV-B rays and has a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 15,” WebMD says.

Note: The American Academy of Dermatology and American Cancer Society recommend a minimum SPF of 30.

Whichever strength you choose, many of these organizations emphasize that numbers can be confusing. It’s easy to assume, for example, that a sunscreen with an SPF 30 delivers twice the protection as an SPF 15 formula.

However, the reality is that, according to the Cancer Council NSW, “an SPF of 30 allows one-thirtieth, or 3.3% of UV to reach your skin. This means it filters 96.7% of UV. With an SPF of 50, 98% is filtered, and one-fiftieth or 2% gets through.”

Bottom line: Continuing with this math, an SPF 15 formula allows one-fifteenth or 6.6% of UV rays to reach your skin, thereby offering 93.4% filtration. Which is only 3.3% less than an SPF 30.

As a result, many professionals point out that purchasing anything over SPF 50 likely won’t deliver better value for the money or protection from UV radiation.

Should You Spend More for Cycling Sunscreen?

Should you max out your budget? When it comes to sunscreen, “be aware that more expensive does not mean better,” WebMD advises.

“Although a costly brand might feel or smell better, it is not necessarily more effective than a cheaper product,” they say.

To this extent, Consumer Reports (note: subscription required for full access) tested 70 different sunscreens in 2018 “that cost anywhere from 47 cents to $12.12 per ounce.”

After they “plotted the scores against the price per ounce for all the sunscreens in our tests, we saw no clear relationship between price and performance.”

Therefore, “super sun protection doesn’t have to come with a hefty price tag,” they concluded.

Are There Any Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid?

WebMD points out that you should avoid sunscreens containing any ingredients to which you’re sensitive, especially para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), which can cause burning and stinging.

If you have reactions to any other ingredients, make sure to try third-party formulas, as they can differ by quite a bit. And if you’re especially sensitive, involving your dermatologist at this point could help you save a lot of money on wasted sunscreen, not to mention potentially uncomfortable skin reactions.

Similarly, WebMD recommends using a water-based sunscreen if you have oily or acne-prone skin, whereas Road Bike Rider says, “shop around for one that has an alcohol base, which helps it dry into the skin, so it’s less likely to be wiped or rinsed off.”

Keep in mind that because oxybenzone seeps into the skin, the Environmental Working Group indicates it “is a weak estrogen and has potent anti-androgenic effects (Krause 2012, Ghazipura 2017)” in laboratory studies. Consequently, they rate it as an eight on their Hazard Score.

Comparatively, EWG gives topical titanium dioxide and zinc oxide a Hazard Score of two, since very little skin penetration occurs (less than 0.01%) and there’s no evidence of hormone disruption.

Finally, whichever ingredients you decide to go with, WebMD emphasizes that you should never purchase or use expired sunscreen since its UV-fighting formulation can degrade and leave you more prone to sun damage.

TreadBikely’s Top Cycling Sunscreen Picks

Pulling all of these details together, we’ve listed three of the top-rated physical, chemical, and spray-on sunscreens listed on Amazon below.

Pro tip: You’ll quickly see that, overall, they’re primarily just different combinations of the same active ingredients.

In addition to their mostly positive customer feedback, these options offer substantial value for the money (based on my personal experience, in more than one instance), feature broad-spectrum formulas that can keep your skin safe, will continue working for up to 80 minutes while you’re cycling—even when you’re drenched in sweat, and come from reputable companies.

Chemical Sunscreens

Top Chemical Sunscreen Creams for Cycling
Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch, 3 oz Sun Bum Original Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion, 8 oz NO-AD Sun Care Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30 16 oz  
Price / Per Ounce $8.97 / $2.99 oz $15.99 / $2 oz $8.97 / $0.56 oz
Active Ingredients Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 15%, Octisalate 5%, Octocrylene 10%, Oxybenzone 6% Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 5%, Octisalate 3%, Octocrylene 10% Avobenzone 2%, Homosalate 10%, Octisalate 5%, Oxybenzone 3%
Average Amazon Rating 4.5 (1,046 reviews) 4.4 (1,964 reviews) 4.5 (267 reviews)
Pros Use it often myself (sensitive skin), dries quickly w/no residue, small size can fit in a larger saddlebag Also use it myself, get a lot for your money, works on sensitive skin, available in a variety of SPFs Lowest-priced option here, you get a lot for your money, great for slathering up pre-ride
Cons Highest-priced option here, not a lot for the money Large container means you can’t carry while riding Not easy to carry while riding
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If you’re looking to get the most sunscreen for your money, chemical formulas are the way to go.

According to Skinacea, these “filters offer more coverage against UVA and UVB rays than physical sunscreens.” They’re also colorless and odorless, although they tend “tend to be more irritating to skin” and some “can cause allergic reactions” if you’re especially sensitive.

Furthermore, chemical sunscreens can cause stinging and watering if they get into your eyes, which can be especially problematic when cycling.

Interviewed for Harper’s Bazaar, Dr. Cathleen London, Assistant Professor of Medicine at Weill Cornell Medical College, also warns, “some of the chemical sunscreens can actually cause free radical formation, which leads to more sun damage in the long run.”

Physical Sunscreens

Top Physical/Combination Sunscreen Creams for Cycling
EltaMD UV Sunscreen for Sensitive or Acne-Prone Skin, 1.7 oz Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+ Family Size, 6 oz Blue Lizard Australian Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30+, 3 oz
Price / Per Ounce $33 / $19.41 oz $22.99 / $3.83 oz $14.99 / $5 oz
Active Ingredient(s) Zinc oxide 9%, Octinoxate 7.5% Zinc oxide 20%   Octinoxate 7.5%, Octocrylene 2%, Oxybenzone 3%, Zinc Oxide 6%
Average Amazon Rating 4.3 (3,213 reviews) 4.4 (523 reviews) 4.5 (483 reviews)
Pros Small size for easy carry, ideal for sensitive skin (including those prone to acne, rosacea, and discoloration) A lot (comparatively) for the money, only one active ingredient if you want to limit exposure, lowest price here Travel size for easy carry, UV-reactive cap for gauging levels
Cons By far the highest price among all sunscreens here, very little for the money With high zinc oxide content will appear white on the skin Not exactly inexpensive
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Comparatively, you can see that you’ll typically pay meaningfully more per ounce for physical sunscreens than competing chemical formulations.

Since they sit atop the skin, physical formulations are typically less irritating than chemical versions, though, and start working as soon as you rub them on.

But, their thickness makes them more difficult to apply, they rub off easier, and they also leave behind a white residue that might appear unflattering, depending on your preferences.

Spray-On Sunscreens

Top Spray-On Sunscreens for Cycling
Coppertone SPORT Continuous Sunscreen Spray Broad Spectrum SPF 70, 5.5 oz Banana Boat Sunscreen Sport Performance SPF 30, 6 oz Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist SPF 45, 5 oz  
Price / Per Ounce $14.50 / $2.64 oz $11.94 (2-pack) / $1 oz $14.88 / $2.98 oz
Active Ingredient(s) Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 15%, Octisalate 5%, Octocrylene 10%, Oxybenzone 6% Avobenzone 2%, Homosalate 6%, Octocrylene 6% Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 15%, Octisalate 5%, Oxybenzone 6%
Average Amazon Rating 4.1 (151 reviews) 4.1 (446 reviews) 4.5 (267 reviews)
Pros Contains the most chemical sunscreen ingredients here, the spray works at any angle, also contains moisturizers and Vitamin E   Lowest-priced option here, 2-pack provides highest volume, non-greasy feel Sheer formula w/weightless feel, the spray works at any angle, non-comedogenic (won’t clog pores)
Cons Not much lower priced than Neutrogena Contains the fewest ingredients (although this doesn’t necessarily reflect performance) Highest price–Nearly twice as much as the lowest priced option
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Ingredient-for-ingredient, spray-on chemical sunscreens deliver the same level of protection as their cream and lotion counterparts. The biggest difference, says Mayo Clinic, could largely come down to personal preferences and intended use:

“Parents often prefer sprays because they’re easy to apply on children. Because it’s difficult to know how well you’re applying the spray, apply a generous and even coating.

Or consider using a gel or cream first and using a spray to reapply sunscreen later. Also, avoid inhaling the product. Don’t apply spray near heat, an open flame or while smoking.”

What’s Next for You When it Comes to Cycling Sunscreen?

Between the fresh air in your lungs, bright sunshine on your skin, and endorphins flowing through your body, riding a bike is one of the most blissful experiences known to humankind. But, if you’re not careful, you can cause lasting damage to your long-term health.

The good news is that you’re now armed with all of the core details you need to make a more informed decision, along with some great options to choose from whenever you’re ready to buy.

Do you recommend any specific sunscreen formulas while cycling? Share your knowledge by leaving a comment below!

Keep rolling: Do Compression Socks Improve Cycling Performance?

Derek has more than two decades of experience as a cyclist, and is the founder of TreadBikely. He currently travels full-time with his family via RV, enjoying the country's best biking destinations. A secular Buddhist, Derek frequently explores the intersection of cycling, mindfulness, and compassion in his writing. #rolloutblissout
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