Skin cancer, cycling and how to protect yourself

Cover up, slap on sunscreen and reduce the risk

Cycling outside in the sunshine is one of the greatest pleasures in life, but prolonged exposure can cause premature ageing of the skin, sunburn, or in the worst case, skin cancer.

In June 2013, Todd Gogulski went to his doctor about a small growth he’d noticed just below his left eye, “It changed a little from time-to-time,” he told BikeRadar. “Sometimes it looked like a blister or a bump, and it was very small, maybe half the size of a grain of rice.”

Referred to a dermatologist, a biopsy confirmed that it was early basal cell cancer.

Gogulski is convinced that the hundreds of cumulative hours spent in the saddle and outside played a part.

“I would suspect it is due to a lifetime of sun exposure, the vast majority of which I was exposed to through cycling as it was my career for 10 years, and continuing on since retirement.”

Benefit vs. risk

Cycling is, without a doubt, predominantly a very healthy pastime. There are numerous health benefits, and regular exercise has been shown time and time again to reduce the risk of various types of cancer such as breast and bowel.

However, prolonged exposure to the sun increases the risk of developing skin cancer, particularly if you ride when the sun is strongest or in hotter climates.

Most cyclists will spend hours at a time outdoors, which means many cumulative hours of exposure. Add to that the fact that sweat can wash away sunscreen, the risk of sunburn is high.

UEA Abu Dhabi team leader Portugese cyclist Rui Costa applying sunscreen
UEA Abu Dhabi team leader Portugese cyclist Rui Costa applying sunscreen

5 things you can do to reduce the risk of skin cancer

Of course, none of this should mean you don’t go out and ride, it’s just a case of managing the risk.

Dr. Jasmine Just, health information officer at Cancer Research UK, shares five key things you need to do to ensure you are protected when out riding.

1. Don’t ride when the sun is strongest, and seek shade

“During British summer time, the sun’s UV rays are strongest between 11am and 3pm so, where possible, think about going for a ride before 11am or after 3pm, when the sun isn’t as strong,” comments Dr Just, “and when stopping for breaks, remember to seek out some cool shade to avoid too much sun.”

2. Cover up

“It’s unlikely you’ll be able to stick to the shade all the time when you’re out riding, so using clothing to cover up as best you can is key. Aim for clothes with a close weave; try holding up the material to check you can’t see through the fabric,” Dr Just advises.

There are increasing numbers of products available that offer sun protection or UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) from arm sleeves to jerseys, so it’s worth considering investing in these.

Dr. Just also recommends paying attention to protecting your face: “Sunglasses are important, and consider helmets with a visor.” If your helmet doesn’t have a visor, pop a lightweight cap underneath for some additional shade

3. Use sunscreen, use it properly, and reapply it regularly — even ‘once a day’ sun screen

Most people are used to slathering on the sunscreen, but applying it properly and reapplying it regularly is crucial for it to be effective.

“Many people think sunscreen is bulletproof, but it should only be used as the last line of defence on the places you can’t cover with clothes,” Dr. Just says. She continues with what might be a surprising piece of advice: “Sunscreens with SPF 15 should provide enough protection, when used properly, wherever you are in the world.

“Sunscreens with higher SPF don’t provide a lot of extra protection and can lure people into thinking they can stay out in the sun for longer. Even ‘once-a-day’ sunscreen needs to be reapplied regularly.”

4. Know your skin type

Some skin types are particularly susceptible and some people already know to be vigilant.

“Some people are at a higher risk of skin cancer than others and need to be particularly careful, such as those with fair skin, or skin that burns more easily, red or fair hair, and people with lots of moles or freckles.”

But don’t disregard protection if you have darker skin, as all skin types are vulnerable.

5. Look out for the warning signs

Keep an eye on any moles or unusual and persistent raised patches of skin. If you notice any changes, or you’re concerned at all, visit your doctor.

Cancer Research UK has a guide on what to look out for.

Products to help you cover up

Happily for Gogulski, although he has experienced two incidences of early cancerous cells, on both occasions the suspect area has been successfully removed and there has been no re-occurrence since then.

As a result, he has taken the advice of his dermatologist to heart. “They told me to wear sunscreen every single day, regardless of what I’m doing. I also wear protective clothing, including long sleeves and hats almost always. On the bike, I’ve found some companies who make ‘sun covers’ for my arms and I also wear a neck gaiter.

"The sun covers are easy and don’t really feel hot, but the neck gaiter can be brutal on a climb! Thankfully I live Boulder, Colorado where the humidity is very low.

"I also use some bad-ass sunblock on my face: it’s a physical block, not a chemical one, which doesn’t run into my eyes and doesn’t seem to sweat off. It’s called CōTZ and it’s lightly tinted so I don’t look like I’m wearing much of everything, but it does have to be scrubbed off every night!”

Increasing numbers of brands are producing kit that offers a degree of sun protection and lightweight protective cover-ups that won’t see you cooking on the bike.

And as Gogulski mentioned, you can also add a neck gaiter and a peaked cycling cap to shade your neck and face. The resulting look can be interesting, but it certainly beats the alternative.

“My friend Ben calls my riding kit my Lawrence of Arabia look.”

The 'Lawrence of Arabia' look, as modelled by Todd Gogulski
The 'Lawrence of Arabia' look, as modelled by Todd Gogulski

Aoife Glass

Women's Cycling Editor
A mountain biker at heart, also drawn to the open road. Likes big long adventures in the mountains. Usually to be found in the Mendip Hills or the Somerset Levels in the UK. Passionate about women's cycling at all levels.
  • Discipline: Mountain, road
  • Preferred Terrain: Rocky, rough and a long way from anywhere.
  • Current Bikes: Liv Avail Advanced Pro 2015, Juliana Furtado 2013, Canyon Roadlite AL
  • Dream Bike: Juliana Roubion, Liv Avail Advanced SL
  • Beer of Choice: Red wine for the win!
  • Location: Weston Super Mare, Somerset, UK

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