By Coach Rick Schultz
Now that spring is here and the sun it starting to shine again, it’s time to think about sun protection. When in the sun, you want to protect yourself against the harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays that can cause skin and related damage across a range up to and including cancer. Cyclists need to cover and protect:
- Your eyes with a good pair of quality sunglasses that block out 99-100% of both UVA and UVB rays
- The top of your head, face, ears, neck, lips, arms and legs (your skin, in other words, all over your body) with a good quality sunscreen (See Sunscreen Info and Tips for Summer Riding for a primer on sunscreen and its use, and Dr. Mirkin’s more recent article on the safest types of sunscreen and types to avoid.)
But what about the parts of your body covered by your jersey, shorts, etc? A few years ago in one of our Health Matters columns titled Wearing Sunscreen Under a Jersey, the author cited a board-certified dermatologist colleague who estimated that the sun protection factor (SPF) of a regular jersey (one with no added sun protection) is about 8. “This is a very low level of protection – especially for a long day in the sun,” he said.
More Sun-Protection Cycling Apparel Now Available
It seems that cycling apparel in the past few years is increasingly featuring sun protection as a standard feature, especially in “warm weather” gear. Ultraviolet Protection Factor, or UPF, indicates what percentage or fraction of UV rays can penetrate the fabric. UPF boils down to several things:
- How tight the weave is of your clothing. The tighter the weave of the fabric, the smaller the holes between the threads and the more UV radiation the fabric blocks. For example, a pair of denim jeans has a UPF of 1,700, meaning only 1/1,700 of the sun’s UV rays reaches the skin.
- The type of fiber your clothing is made out of.
- How thick/heavy/dense the fabric is. Usually the thicker the material, the less UV is transmitted.
- What color is the fabric? Darker or brighter colors (red, black) absorb more UV than lighter or white materials.
- Whether you have increased your clothes’ UPF rating with laundry additives such as Sun Guard or Tinosorb.
What’s The Difference Between UPF and SPF?
UPF is a rating used for fabric that measures both UVA and UVB radiation blocked. SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, is a rating for sunscreens and their ability to protect you against UVB rays, which are the ones that can burn your skin and cause skin cancer. (UVA rays are the ones responsible for prematurely aging the skin; they can also cause cancer.) Water and sweat will cause the sunscreen to dilute and/or completely run off, so that is why the sunscreen manufacturers and dermatologists say to apply liberally and apply often.
How Sun-Protective Clothing is Tested
From melanomafoundation.org: New standards for sun protective fabrics in the United States were unveiled in January 2001. The United States now has the most stringent UV-protective clothing standards in the world! The new UPF fabric rating also requires that fabrics claiming to be sun protective must be prepared in the following ways before testing:
- Undergo 40 simulated launderings.
- Be exposed to 100 fading units of simulated sunlight (equivalent to 2 years’ light exposure).
- And, if intended for swim wear, exposure to chlorinated water.
The following chart provides a quick glimpse at the relative effectiveness of various UPF and SPF ratings:
What Sun-Protected Cycling Apparel is Available?
We’ve pulled together a partial list of manufacturers that have UPF 28 to 50+ rated cycling and triathlon clothing.
Note: Not every line – or every product within a line – from all of these manufacturers is UPF-rated. You will need to look carefully at individual lines of clothing (and specific items within each line), since some manufacturers have extensive product lines that are all UPF-rated, while others have only one line, and still others only one product. Also, some products are listed as ‘UPF’, others listed as ‘SPF’ and others as ‘UV rated’.
Since product lines change all of the time, it is recommended that you look at each product that you are interested in to see the UPF rating – if any.
Finally, after quite a bit of searching the Internet, it became clear that many cycling clothing manufacturers have zero options for UPF-rated apparel.
Again, the following is a partial list of some of those companies that do feature UPF-rated apparel:
Did we miss any of your favorites?
Read more: Cycling Apparel for UV protection.
According to the SunGuard website, synthetic fabrics such as polyester cannot be effectively treated using SunGuard.
Kerry Irons says
I really have to question the issue of SPF/UPF for clothing. I get that a mesh jersey panel or shorts panel would let through sunlight, but I have NEVER experienced any sun exposure through a normal jersey. And when I say NEVER, I don’t mean I’ve never gotten a burn but rather at the end of the cycling season, I’m just as white as at the beginning. You can see no tanning AT ALL on my back or shoulders. I’m of northern European stock and I’m that classic “white whale” wherever I’ve been covered in clothing.
Dr Codfish says
I really appreciate this article. As a tow headed kid I got terrible sun burns and later when I spent much of my working life outdoors (US Forest Service) and playing outdoors (Randonneuring) I didn’t make much effort to protect myself from sun exposure. The net result is that now at 68 years of age I have a condition called actinic keratosis and must have treatments for skin lesions once or twice a year. I wish I had taken better care of myself all those years ago.
David K says
Can anyone suggest fabric covering for the ears? The only ear covering I’ve seen is made by Cat Ears. It is a triangular piece that fits over helmet straps, made of Polartec 100, a bit warm in summer.
Can anyone recommend a fabric covering for the ears and neck? Cat Ears makes a triangular piece that fits over helmet straps, made of Polartec 100, a bit warm in summer.
Buff makes uv multifunctional headbands/neck gaiters that are pretty lightweight (especially repreve)
Robert Howard says
I have found that long sleeve summer jerseys of high quality fabric are cooler that short sleeve ones. With 35 to 50 SPF they eliminate the necessity of sun screen on the arms. Also, for bald headed men like me, a white skull cap is a necessity. No tan streakes from the helmet vents! No sun screen from the top of my head dribbling down into my eyes. Legs are a different story. I haven’t found a substitution for sun screen there, and tights don’t work so well in the summer. Anyone have thoughts about that?
I agree with Kerry Irons. I have a hard time accepting that clothing- pretty much any clothing- is not adequate sun protection. I am 67, have spent a lot of time outdoors, much of it in the years before there was such a thing as sunscreen. The skin on my face and hands, and to a lesser extent, arms and legs, shows its age. The rest of me, which has always been covered up, is not only not tanned or burned, it shows no sign of age. So , how is this reconciled with the frequent advice to wear sunscreen all over, or to select clothing that offers adequate protection? My skin strongly suggests that any clothing is adequate.
I have had the same experience and I just turned 70. Been an outdoor person my entire life. Half of it spent in sundrenched Colorado. Recently I have turned a bit scientific. Bought a UV meter and thermometer with a probe end. My off the shelf polyester wicking material clothing not only totally blocks UV but is cooler than direct exposure.
Bottomline is I will never put chemicals on my body that in many cases absorb into my bloodstream. Covering up with clothing that wicks sweat plus is cool in summer and warm in colder months makes the most sense. Anyone that has doubts I would encourage you to check it out.
Early on, the article mentions how denim has a UPF of 1700. So, you’re correct that conventional apparel works to block UV radiation. The reason for a UPF rating in outdoor apparel is that during strenuous activity, you don’t really want to be wearing a heavy black hoodie and raw denim jeans. Lighter clothing provides a more comfortable experience when perspiring. With a UPF rating, people can be assured to still have the protection necessary to guard again harmful UV exposure without being smothered.
1700 seems a bit high compared with 50+ which is excellent. where is the original source that this is true.
Bob Sharpley says
O’Neil is a surfing clothing company that I have been using for years before it became popular. Be safe out there.
Dave Minden says
For covering ears I will use a bandanna folded so it covers my head and ears, it definitely adds warmth though. DaBrim makes a dorky looking brim attachment for helmets.
For my bald head I have a Smith helmet with Kolroyd, straws/tubes that are perhaps better than MIPS and while directing air past my scalp don’t allow much sun through.
Mr. Versatile says
I’d like to see a response to Kerry Irons & Winnie’s posts. I’m 76 years old & have been riding at least 4,000 per year for the past 56 years & my experience has been exactly the same as theirs. I’m a “ginger” (red hair & freckles). I had surgery for melanoma on the side of my neck about 9 years ago. I’m lot more careful about protecting myself since then, but I’ve never experienced any evidence of tanning, burning, or damage from sunlight where I was covered by clothing.
John Klever says
I have covered myself from head to toe with cycling clothes for at least a decade. I simply got tired of having to clean the black oil slick left by sunscreen in my bathtub. Covering the entire body with clothes is a much more effective and less messy clothing choice than sunscreen. When I started, my first options were limited; all I could find was Sol Skin products that I purchased from Voler. Now there are many more choices. For my neck and head I use a gator that I can pull up over my bald head. I do use sunscreen on my face and hands. My cycling buddies no longer ask me if my approach is overly warm because I have explained that evaporative cooling actually works better here in arid Colorado with clothing. If the “cycling look” were not a factor, more cyclists would adopt this approach.
I am neurotic about skin damage but also theoretical sunscreen impacts. I tell those who laugh at my complete clothing cover that I am adding some heat stress so that they can keep up and so I dont get cold waiting for them. I suspect that clothing SPF 8 is as good as sunscreen SPF30 because usually not enough cream is applied. Its probably close to impossible to do a proper trial of the real-life long term benefits of sunscreen,…which is my excuse for not looking!
like several comments from 60+ readers, i too felt that clothes and all would be enuf protection .. but this Fall, as I head toward 73, I’ve had two skin legions appear, then biopsied/diagnosed squamous cell carcinoma. Treatable by being surgically removed … two patches if skin removed … it’s quite a pain and, may be the first of more to come. As we out of doors/sports types live longer, the chances of getting skin caners go up.. ‘just saying”