A Sunscreen Primer: Stay Safe in the Sun.

There’s no doubt that humans need sunlight: exposure to the sun reduces depression, increases immune function, and may assist in fighting insomnia. Exercise has some of the same benefits. However when we are out on the bike we put ourselves at risk of deteriorating our long-term health. We’re not talking about bike safety and wearing a helmet, but rather over exposure to the potentially harmful rays of the sun. As the link is clear between excess sun exposure and skin cancer, we must be responsible when it comes to getting our daily dose of sunshine while out on the bike.

cyclist wearing sunscreen

Fun in the sun.

2015 will see more than 3.5 million new diagnoses of non-melanoma skin cancer, and nearly 10,000 deaths in the US as a result of melanoma. Melanoma, a tumor of melanin-producing cells, is caused by a combination of genetics, environment, and often, over-exposure to ultra violet light. Although the most deadly of skin cancers, melanoma is also considered the most preventable. As most dermatologists will attest, one of the most effective ways to prevent melanoma, short of living a nocturnal lifestyle, is regular use of effective sunscreen whenever the sun is in the sky, cloudy and overcast days included. In fact, studies in Hawaii (Mims & Frederick, 1994) show that UV enhancement on cloudy days can be up to 30% above expected clear-sky levels. If you want to play it safe, apply sunscreen to unclothed skin whenever you go outside for longer than twenty minutes depending on time of year and geographical location. Twenty minutes of unblocked sunlight is generally considered enough to get a day’s worth of Vitamin D.

Jeff spicoli wearing sunscreen

Jeff Spicoli practiced proper sun protection.

Easy, you say? Just grab some sunscreen at the drug store checkout and you’re good to go? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple. Many sunscreens are full of toxic ingredients that are not only harmful to your long-term well-being, but might not be effective at preventing ultra-violet exposure.  Fortunately, it’s easy to ensure you are making the best choice for your needs.  A quick look at the ingredients list backed up with a little knowledge is all you need.

There are two types of sunscreens; physical blockers and chemical absorbers. Blockers reflect incoming UV rays, while absorbers, well, absorb UV rays.  Zinc is the safest and most effective physical UV blocker, preventing the complete spectrum of UVA and UVB rays from reaching the skin. Titanium dioxide is also generally considered to be a safe blocker as well. As long as it’s on your skin, zinc oxide won’t lose potency (it does wear off), and it does not cause rashes or other skin irritation. Incredibly tenacious, zinc oxide has the most sweat and water resistance of any sunscreen. Since it is not absorbed by your skin, zinc oxide does not create hormone disruption or cause cell damage as UV absorbers have been found to do. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are to be avoided, however, if they are nanoparticle sized. Nanoparticles of zinc and titanium can absorb through your skin and into your cells, possibly increasing cancer risk. Look for non-nano physical blockers (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) as the active ingredients.

Chemical absorbers are so named because they absorb and convert UV rays before they can harm the skin. In order to protect against the full spectrum of UV rays, chemical absorbers are blended, but usually don’t provide the range of protection that zinc oxide does. Chemical sunscreens often fall short in adequately absorbing UVA rays, which cause long-term damage, from deeply penetrating the skin. Immune system suppression, accelerated skin aging, and skin cancer are all caused by overexposure to UVA rays. Common UV absorbing chemicals pass through the skin into the blood stream, and have been linked to hormone disruption and cell damage, which creates harmful free-radicals. Commonly-used chemical ingredients include oxybenzone, which can disrupt the hormone system, and retinyl palmitate (vitamin A), which may trigger cell damage, possibly including cancer.

Thinksport SPF 50 Zinc Oxide Sunscreen

Thinksport SPF 50 Zinc Oxide Sunscreen

Besides the above-mentioned chemical ingredients, there are other things to avoid when choosing a sunscreen.  Spray-on sunscreens, for instance, can be inhaled, can get in your eyes, and often don’t provide full coverage. Additionally, avoid sunscreens with sun protection factor (SPF) ratings above 50. SPF ratings only apply to UVB rays, which cause sunburn, but the SPF number doesn’t provide any info about the sunscreen’s effectiveness at blocking UVA rays, which cause long-term damage. Grossly exaggerated claims of SPF’s over 50 may also imbue a false sense of security, leading to inadequate reapplication of sunscreen after prolonged sun exposure.

Even though that’s a lot of information, choosing a safe, effective sunscreen doesn’t have to be intimidating or time consuming. According to the Environmental Working Group website (ewg.org), there are eight guidelines to follow, which we’ll list here. Avoid; spray sunscreens, super-high SPF’s, oxybenzone, retinyl palmitate, combined sunscreen/bug repellants, sunscreen towelettes or powders, and tanning oils. To make it even simpler, only use lotion sunscreens, with no active ingredients besides non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Our crew at Art’s always armors up with Thinksport Zinc Oxide SPF 50 sunscreen. Rated as a one on the EWG’s scale (zero being low hazard and ten being high hazard), makes us believers in Thinksport’s commitment to safe and effective sun protection. However, choosing a safe, effective sunscreen is just the first step; you’ve got to use it correctly.

For a sunscreen to block harmful rays from your skin, it’s got to be on your skin. Make sure you cover all exposed skin, including your ears, eyelids, and hands. If your dome is hairless, whether by choice or by chance, make sure you cover that as well… there’s nothing quite so perplexing as a helmet-patterned sunburn. Also, reapplication is necessary every 80 minutes if you’re sweating or in the water, and don’t get more than two hours of sun exposure without reapplying sunscreen.

While the benefits of vitamin D are many and crucial, the threat of skin cancer is real as well. Proper sun exposure management includes getting healthy levels of sunlight, and preventing damaging excess. Clothing, a proper diet rich in anti-oxidants, and regular use of sunscreen are all valuable tools for maximizing your health. Just as you seek out the best food to put in your body, look for the best and safest sunscreen to put on your body too.