Sunscreen can't offer complete protection from the sun

Credit: Jim Gensheimer/Allsport
We've all heard the recent statistics that while most forms of cancer are on the decrease, the incidence of melanoma, the most deadly of skin cancers, continues to rise.

So why is skin cancer still the most common form of cancer in the United States, and should cyclists be very concerned even it they are slathering on sunscreens?

The answer may surprise you. Without a doubt, the key reason for people developing skin cancer is long-term overexposure to the sun. However, while more people than ever have been heeding the advice of dermatologists and using sunscreen, there is a new controversy over how well it works.

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, most people (and in particular cyclists) who spend time outdoors do not apply enough sunscreen.

In a study published in the Archives of Dermatology, researchers determined that the average person applies only half of the proper amount, and therefore receives only half of the SPF protection.

The irony is not only do many cyclists not apply and then reapply sunscreen, but they also spend even more time out in the sun than they otherwise would. In research published in the August 1999 issue of the Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Dr. Phillipe Autier of the European Institute of Oncology concluded, "use of higher SPF sunscreen seems to increase the duration of recreational sun exposure of young people."

This news concerns me as one takes one or two long rides a week that often extend to when the sun in highest in the sky. And it should concern those of you who like to get out even more often for long rides.

But, what about the jersey? That should block much of the suns harmful rays, right?

Wrong. Most normal warm-weather clothing such as cycling jerseys and athletic clothing offer less than 9 SPF when dry and less than 5 SBF when damp or wet.

Second of all, most of the recent fabric technology that is used in cycling clothing has been about wicking action and loose weaves. Unfortunately, the very fibers that let heat and moisture out are pretty good at letting sun in. Combine a loose weave with sweat and the jersey and shorts you wear may have a SPF factor as low as 5. That adds up to a lot of sun over the course of a 40-mile ride, round of golf, or a triathlon.

Since I am spending more time on my bicycle during the mid-day hours at the high altitude of Colorado, my search for greater protection led me to a company founded on the principle of providing maximum skin protection against the sun.

My search lead me to Sun Precautions, Inc. and their line of Solumbra 30+ SPF clothing that heads off the effort of the sun to reach your body.

Developed by Shaun Hughes, who contracted and survived malignant melanoma at age 26, and once an avid cyclist, Solumbra clothing is so effective in sun protection that it is actually regulated by the FDA as a medical device.

That regulation acknowledges Solumbra's right to make claims that it is medically effective in the prevention of specific conditions such as skin cancer. Based on a 30+ SPF fabric, Solumbra provides all-day UVA and UVB sun protection, even when wet from heavy sweating.

So, I decided to put one of their cycling jerseys to the test on several long weekend rides, including a 100-mile ride that I rode in just about five hours with a group. I found the proprietary weaves of Solumbra clothing are quite light and breathable. The clothing is comfortable even when putting out a lot of effort and there is little heat buildup.

But remember: Even if you wear traditional cycling clothing you should still cover your unprotected skin and shoulders with a sunscreen of at least 30 SPF.

One out of three skin cancers appears on the nose, while many others sprout on the neck and face. It may also be wise to carry a small tube of waterproof sunscreen in your jersey pocket when going on rides lasting several hours and reapply the sunscreen to your face, neck, arms and legs if you are using traditional cycling garments after two hours on the bike.

It is also recommended that you apply the sunscreen about 30 minutes before you go outside so that it is properly absorbed by the skin and starts working as soon as you get on the bike.

As much as I love to ride my bike, I knew the sun was beginning to take a toll on my skin. Aside from applying sunscreen and then worrying about sweating it off, I knew I had no protection whatsoever on my long training rides.

Now on the days that I take my four- to six-hour bicycle rides during the peak hours of sunlight, I know that I have complete upper-body protection. After reviewing the research on the fabric, and witnessing the benefits for myself, I know in fact it is smart medicine.

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