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Basic Guide: Skincare for Cyclists

There’s nothing better than going for a great ride on a beautiful sunny day. The kind of day when there’s not a cloud in the sky, the humidity is low, and the temperature is just right. It can make miles fly by, put new strength in your legs, and remind you why you love this sport so much. It’s also the kind of day when it’s most important to take care of your skin. Your skin is your body’s most important defense against the elements, but sometimes you need to give it some help from time to time to ensure you stay safe, comfortable, and get the most out of your ride.


SUNSCREEN: There are few things that can ruin the rest of the week to come like a sunburn. Because most of us get in our longest rides when the weather is the nicest, that means many cyclists spend long hours outside exposed to the sun. UV rays from the sun can not only cause sunburns, but can also cause a range of other issues from sun damage to cancers like melanoma, so it’s important to protect your skin with a quality sunscreen. Pick one that offers at least 35 SPF, and that won’t run when you get sweaty. Even the best sport sunscreens though will eventually need to be reapplied after about 80-90 minutes, so it might be a good idea to pick up some single-use sunscreen packets before a long ride. If you have very fair skin, a lot of moles, or a personal or family history of skin cancer, you may want to consult with a dermatologist to find a sunscreen that can offer you more protection. If you want additional protection for the sun, consider investing in a jersey and shorts that have a high UPF rating.


BUG PROTECTION: As relaxing and enjoyable as a mountain bike ride through the woods can be, biting insects can quickly turn it into a trip through hell if you’re not protected. Mosquitoes, biting flies and ticks are not only a nuisance, but they can also carry diseases like West Nile Virus, Eastern Equine Encephalitis, Lyme Disease and Rocky Mountain Fever. To shield yourself from tons of itchy bites and the possibility of disease, protect yourself by apply bug spray to any exposed skin before heading off into the woods. Look for one with a high level of DEET or other deterrent, and make sure to follow the instructions carefully. Check with your local health department or forest service for further advice about what kinds of insects are in your area, and how best to protect yourself from them.


CHAMOIS CREAM: Saddle sores aren’t something that’s generally discussed in polite company, but they can be a maddening and embarrassing irritation for cyclists of all skill levels. Saddle sores are thought to result from a number of different causes. Excess friction generated between the rider and saddle, ill-fitting shorts or saddle, and even hot weather can cause small skin abrasions that can be quickly infected by bacteria. If left untreated, they can be become chronic, painful boil-like sores that can stop cyclists from riding all together. The best way to treat saddle sores is to prevent them from forming in the first place. Make sure your shorts and saddle both fit appropriately, and then try applying chamois cream to the pad in your shorts before a ride. The best way to apply it is to start by putting the shorts on half way, and then slathering the cream on the pad. Don’t be shy, and apply a generous amount, especially in problem areas. This will not only help soften up the pad—essential for a new pair of shorts—but will provide a lubricant that reduces friction as you ride, eliminating hot spots, protecting your skin, and increasing comfort. As you ride, it will just kind of disappear, absorbed into your skin and the chamois pad. 

If you do have the misfortune of developing a saddle sore, however, it's best to treat it right away. For minor saddle sores, simply using chamois cream and a different pair of shorts may be enough. Keep the area dry, and be sure to take your shorts off and bathe as soon as possible after a ride. For more painful or persistent problems, we've had some luck using acne treatments like Clean & Clear Persa-Gel 10-- but always make sure to consult with a doctor before beginning any treatment regimen. If the sore feels warm to the touch, is extremely painful, or if you've developed a fever, seek medical attention right away, as this could indicate a more severe infection. 


SHAVE GEL: If you’ve decided to take the plunge and go with smooth legs, you’ll want to make sure you do it right. Shave foam and gel made for your face won’t necessarily do the best job on your legs. The hair on your legs is a different texture from your facial hair, and the skin underneath needs to be treated differently to avoid ingrown hairs, nicks and dry skin. There are several shave gels and creams that have been developed for cyclists to help prevent some of the most common skin irritations encountered by smooth-legged cyclists. Some of these products can even be used to dry-shave your legs, something previously only possible amongst the hardest of hard men. And remember, if you choose to shave, forget the sophomoric justifications. You shave because you ride, and that’s reason enough.


EMBROCATION: Embrocation, commonly known as “embro” or “Belgian knee warmers”, is a liniment with a warming effect that is applied to the legs in cold or wet weather. It’s been commonly used in Europe for generations, but is only now making it’s way to North America, where it’s found a devoted following amongst cylcocross racers. Essentially, embrocation is a petroleum gel mixed with a warming essence (usually capsicum from peppers) that you spread on your legs. It allows you to forgo wearing knee or leg warmers, since the warming essence in the embro makes the legs feel warm, and the petroleum-based medium protects the skin from rain and mud. The strength of different embrocations can range from a pleasant tingle to a rather intense burn, so if you’ve never tried one it’s best to buy a more mild formulation. To apply, wait until after you have already put on your shorts, and then spread it on the exposed skin on your legs and wait a few minutes. If you don’t feel a gradual warming sensation, apply another coat. If it’s still not enough, go with a stronger formula. As noted above, apply embrocation after you’ve put on your shorts, and immediately wash your hands thoroughly to avoid transferring it to the eyes or face (no bueno) or the nether regions (really no bueno). To remove embrocation, we suggest using a specially-formulated wash.


WASHES AND WIPES: Cycling is tough on the legs, and the accumulation of road grit, sweat, grime, mud, and embrocation can play havoc with your skin after a ride. Many companies now offer cycling-specific washes that make it easy to get cleaned up after a race or hard training ride before you head home. These washes are formulated to rinse away sweat, or neutralize and remove embrocation. They’ll leave your skin feel clean, soothed and refreshed—especially important if you’re about to climb the podium.


MASSAGE OILS: If you were going to be really pro about your ride, you’d already have a soigneur on hand to help massage your tired leg muscles after a ride or race. But in reality, most of us will be massaging our own legs (or getting our significant others to do it for us, or using a foam roller). Either way, selecting a massage oil that’s formulated for cyclists can help reduce friction, rehydrate your skin, and improve the quality of a massage. This will help soften the muscles and get out any knots, and make the skin feel better. Essential in the quest for the elusive but all important “supplese”.


General Cycling