Can cycling cause skin cancer? 2017 saw former professional cyclist Luis Herrera claim his skin cancer was caused by sun exposure during his cycling career.
The former climber believes his basal cell carcinoma and lesions to his arms and face arose from poor precautions in applying sunscreen during his time cycling in extreme conditions. Another former pro, Magnus Backstedt contracted skin cancer due to the suns rays penetrating his jersey.
So what’s the rub on sunscreens? What do the terminologies mean and how do we protect ourselves while riding outdoors in Australia?
National and international health authorities have assessed that over exposure to UV light causes eye damage, sunburn, and other skin damage. Sun damage due to exposure is cumulative and can ultimately lead to skin cancer.
There are two categories of UV light UVA and UVB. UVB causes sunburn, and UVA has more long-term damaging effects on the skin, like premature aging, immune system suppression and skin cancer.
SPF, or sun protection factor, measure a sunscreen’s effect against UVB rays. The SPF rating is achieved under test conditions in a lab. When we apply an SPF50 we are often putting on around 25% as much as is rated under these conditions.
Ideally, we should apply a layer of 2mg/cm2, however only around a quarter (0.5 mg/cm2) of this amount is generally applied in real life.
ARPANSA (Australian Radiation Protection and Nuclear Safety Association) advise the average adult needs 35ml for one full body application.
The higher SPF sunscreens tend to have better long wavelength (UVA) coverage, so choose a product with a high rating that is SPF30 or higher, and is marked broad-spectrum and water-resistant.
Did you know that some medicines induce photosensitivity in the UV range? If your taking a cramping medication that contains quinine or using some acne medications, you need to ensure your sunscreen has the broad spectrum UVA coverage.
The Australian Standard for sunscreens allows a sun protection factor rating of 50+, which filters 98% of UV radiation in comparison to SPF30, which filters 96.7%. Both SPF30 and SPF50 sunscreens will provide excellent protection as long as they are applied properly.
How long before I ride should I apply my sunscreen? Well, if you wait 4 minutes you’ll wipe out about half the coverage, 8 minutes and you’ll wipe out about a quarter, so ideally a 15-20 minute pre-ride application is best and re apply every 2 hours, particularly when you’re sweating.
An area to watch is called the cyclist’s triangle – this is the triangular area at the back of the head, which includes the neck and ears and will have a very high sun exposure. We often neglect this area simply because its out of sight and out of mind.
Check you lower legs, knees and ankles, these are common areas for melanoma and cancer to develop.
Researchers have used light meters on cyclists and triathletes to test how much UV light they are exposed to. The international standard for how much light will burn an average person is 1MED and that’s roughly how much light an average cyclist may be exposed to on a say a 50km bike ride in non extreme conditions.
This may turn you a little pink, but triathletes and other endurance cyclists, like Tour De France riders, have been known to receive 9 – 17 times their MED during various endurance races.
Can cycling cause skin cancer? Many sports expose athletes to long hours in harsh conditions. Skin damage may be prevented by using good measures to protect yourself, and remember the purpose of using sunscreens is to reduce exposure, not to extend the time spent outside in the sun.
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