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I spend the vast majority of my time inside, so I would like to start getting into cycling. I rode up to the beach a couple days ago and got some slight sunburn. I personally don't mind sunburn all too much, but the news has successfully instilled a fear of skin cancer into me.

My initial reaction to articles like: http://shine.yahoo.com/healthy-living/the-new-rules-of-sun-safety-2477938.html that make claims such as:

It's not smart to go out-of-doors unprotected.

..was that the writers were absolutely nuts. We've spent our entire evolutionary history under the sun - to think that short excursions outdoors would be dangerous seems ludicrous. But then, people are living much longer than they ever did before and, if there are dangerous aspects of sun exposure, the increase in greenhouse gases might be adding to them.

So, does anyone know the reality behind all of this? Should I wear sunblock, or is skin cancer only a risk for people outside all day everyday?

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Baz Luhrmann says yes. youtube.com/watch?v=sTJ7AzBIJoI –  jimirings Dec 13 '12 at 3:33
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7 Answers

up vote 13 down vote accepted

We've spent our entire evolutionary history under the sun, but also aging quickly and dying at young ages. The evolutionary history argument just isn't very compelling.

The current consensus is that sunscreen helps prevent skin cancer, and skin cancer is indeed common. On the other hand, I have seen references to theories suggesting that sunscreen might increase a certain type of cancer or decrease vitamin D production, but these do not seem to be widely accepted. An in-depth discussion of this is probably more appropriate for Skeptics.SE than Bicycles.SE.

In the meantime, just use sunscreen.

EDIT: As heltonbiker pointed out, burning and cancer susceptibility depend on your skin, and most people develop some protection from tanning. I personally wear sunblock during mid-day rides (between about 11:00 and 3:00), when the sun is directly overhead, but I'll leave it off for evening and early morning rides.

If you're burning instead of tanning (even if you don't mind the burns), you're probably getting too much exposure and should use sunscreen more often.

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You can still pass on your genes if you get skin cancer and die when you're 25. –  user973810 May 30 '12 at 20:38
    
I agree with this answer and would "advise" the strategy proposed. Consider my own answer more as speculative reflextion than advice. Nice answer on a very polemic issue! –  heltonbiker May 31 '12 at 1:16
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Also, we haven't spent our entire evolutionary history under the sun. Historically, we just avoided it when it was highest in the sky. And then there's the whole Caucasian thing. We all evolved from Vikings and other cultures that spent vast amounts of time in places that got no sun at all 6 months of the year. Or 12 months of the year, in the case of Britain. ;) –  Ernie Dec 13 '12 at 21:58
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In addition to the long-term effects of UV exposure, the short term side effects (sun burns) are pretty awful, too. Serious burns on your face, neck, and hands could become serious enough to require hospitalization. It happens. –  WTHarper Mar 17 '13 at 20:44
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I offer an "informed decision" answer, partly based on a (slightly skeptical) medical knowledge, and from my experience as a biker. This should NOT be considered some truth emited by a potential authority-figure, neither an advice to act this or that way.

On one hand, there is a very positive association between skin exposure to UV radiation (such as sunlight) and skin cancer. This association is much greater in people who have a very white skin color, such as most european/caucasian ethnic groups. It is believed that this is due to the small capacity of these skin types to produce melanin. Melanin is a dark pigment produced by skin cells to protect the cell nucleus, and its production is somewhat stimulated by sunlight exposure. Please read these very interesting paragraphs from Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Melanin#Human_adaptation

Now, as a biker, my experience is the following:

  • There was a time when I didn't ride much often in direct sunlight. I almost always got sunburn when I went to the beach during the summer, unprotected, when it became obvious that sunblock was needed, at least on high-exposure seasons and places. During that time, riding across noon in the summer almost always implied a reddish sunburn on neck, nose, calves and forearms.
  • Some time later, I started to use sunblock to ride my bike during the summer, if I knew there would be many hours exposed to the sun. It worked a lot, no sunburns at all, but if at any time I forgot the sunblock, I got sunburned.
  • Nowadays, in what my wife (with much reason) considers a very questionable behaviour, I gave up any kind of sun protection to ride the bike, completely. This was due to many "reasons", which I am not ashamed to share:
    • I think the skin must be given the opportunity to develop at least a minimum amount of self-defense;
    • The anti-cancer pro-sunblock-all-the-time propaganda contains all the tints of a pharmaceutical lobby, at least partially;
    • Sheer lazyness, sort of.

The experience I've been having, and it is a totally empirical, baseless, subjective one, is that I very rarely get sunburnt anymore. During the summer, the exposed skin gets very tanned (the classical "cyclist tan") and don't hurt except after very long rides under scorching sun (I tend to use sunblock on these occasions, anyway, but sometimes...).

I think both views (sunblock-always and sunblock-never) are too extreme. That's the reason why a lot of information is needed to choose an "informed decision" strategy, so that one can achieve a reasonable balance between them. The scientifical evidence about cancer vs. sunlight gets to the media very distorted by oversimplification, incompleteness and commercial/professional bias. In the other hand, as already been said, there is an undoubtfully positive evidence of association between UV radiation exposure (as sunlight) and skin cancer incidence on clear-skin populations, which might or might not be overrated.

Hope this helps

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I agree that your skin builds up some resistance, and some people have a lot of natural resistance. –  amcnabb May 30 '12 at 20:37
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I wear sunblock all the time, because I burn easily, as much as cancer concerns.

Alas, one to watch for, as you get older and lose hair, is to remember sunblock under the helmet, else you get burn lines.

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Even if you don't (or in my case it might be better to say "didn't") burn easily - if you're going from spending time inside you want to use sunscreen - if only to avoid pain... –  Murph May 30 '12 at 18:40
    
Alternately you could wear a cycling cap under your helmet. I almost always do. –  user973810 May 30 '12 at 20:34
    
@user973810 Does that wick sweat away? I get so hot, the last thing I want is anything that blocks ventilation. –  geoffc May 31 '12 at 14:42
    
@geoffc, probably not but I can't speak from experience. I'm not much a sweater. –  user973810 May 31 '12 at 16:02
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Also, if you wear spandex you should be sure to apply extra sunblock on top of your thighs and back of your calves since they get more sun cycling than walking and be sure to double check the spot on your lower-back between the jersey and shorts since that gets a lot of sun when you're in the drops. –  Mike Samuel Jun 1 '12 at 16:00
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At the very least you need to be aware of the potential for burning, since, if nothing else, it's unpleasant. (We'll let others preach about skin cancer, et al.)

I don't burn easily, but, when cycling (with a helmet), and the sun is at all bright, I find it advisable to put sun block on the back of my neck, my lower arms (including hands), and my upper legs, below the point that they will be exposed when my shorts "ride up". When riding, these areas are exposed to more intense sun that other parts of the body.

Sometimes the upper arms need treating (if you're not wearing a long-sleeve jersey), if the sun is at a lower angle. And the backs of the lower legs can burn if you're riding east in the afternoon.

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Very solid advice, burning patterns totally agreeing with my personal experience. –  heltonbiker May 31 '12 at 1:17
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I ride with a bunch of old guys. They are all white guys who grew up in the midwest, working on farms, and spending a lot of time in the sun when the weather permitted it.

It is interesting to me that all of them are fastidious when it comes to sun protection. They wear sunscreen and long sleeves when it can be done comfortably. They also can tell you about regular visits to the dermatologist, where they go to fight skin cancer.

Here's a few threads for you to read and ponder:

1) For the love of God, NOW will you wear the sunscreen?

2) Sun Protection from a Dermatologist

Hope that helps

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I use long sleeves to shield myself from the sun during long exposures.

I found a lightweight trekking shirt from REI to be a good fit, it dries quickly and is rather vented and the arms are made to be rolled up and buttoned to stay in place when you don't want the long sleeves. I used this on my last 4 day tour for almost the entire ride.

Also, Pearl Izumi makes sun sleeves which can protect you if you want a more traditional racer style look.

For Your Head you can get skullcaps with a flap on the back of the neck like walz caps skullcap or Halo Headband Solar Skull Cap

For Legs you can get UV leg protectors, SPF 50+ compression leg covers, or Pearl Izumi Sun Knees to protect yourself from the sun.

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My worst burns have been on the back of my neck and on my legs. Do you have any recommendations for these areas, or do you use sunscreen for them? –  amcnabb Jun 1 '12 at 14:48
    
For the back of the neck you can wear a cloth extension to the back of you're helmet. Dunno what it's officially called, but it's like the back of an old Foreign Legion hat. (There are some headscarves that have this feature, but I'd find a headscarf too hot in most cases.) –  Daniel R Hicks Jun 1 '12 at 14:53
    
There are skull caps that have a neck guard. walzcaps.com/caps_skullcaps_helmetliners.html –  Benzo Jun 1 '12 at 15:04
    
    
If you really want more info on some sun blocking stuff, check this page out, you can be a white sunproof ninja... bikewhenever.com/sun_protection.html –  Benzo Jun 1 '12 at 15:21
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I would suggest that you always wear a sun block of a minimum of a 50 SPF. If you don't like putting a sunscreen on, then a long sleeved shirt such as a hiker would wear that has a built in SPF. One thing we all seem to forget, is the fact that sun exposure is more than the 2 to 4 hour ride on your bike. You may already have spent a total of another hour or two doing outside work at the house or just walking in and out of buildings during the day. This sun exposure all adds up on your skin. I have a friend who virtually lived on his bicycle 7 or 8 months out of the year. A 50 to 60 mile ride daily was nothing to him. And then there was golfing or kayacking before or after the ride. He never wore sun protection and was always really dark tanned all year. A few years ago he began treatments for melonoma on his face and shoulders from the comtinuous exposure while unprotected. He never wore a helmet either. He just develops the melonomas and has them treated when they occur. I always wear SPF 50 sun protection that's "waterproof", especially when I take the longer rides.

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