I’m always a bit nervous at the beginning of each cycling season when it’s warm enough to don a short sleeve jersey and shorts. Aside from my alabaster skin blinding anyone within a quarter-mile radius, those first days of full sun exposure inevitably leave me with a patch or streak of hot pink skin that I failed to cover with sunscreen. I burn as easily as ice cream melts without proper cold storage. Increasingly, prolonged sun exposure creates a bit of a rash on my arms, especially on hot days.
So last year, after hearing a friend rave about her sun sleeves, I decided to give them a try – and give my aging and weathering skin a break. Per my friend’s guidance, I found an abundance of options online – what? I can get a 6-pack for $20??? – offering superior protection and comfort. I based my purchasing decision on perceived value for cost, UPF coverage, and style. I wanted to try the variety that came with thumb holes meant to provide full wrist protection. But I also wanted to try a style that was thumb hole-free. None of them were designed specifically for cyclists. All were extremely light weight, rated UPF 50+, and unisex/one-size-fits-all. In all, I ordered 6 pair – mostly in white, gray, and light blue.
I found myself wearing them whenever I was outside, whether biking, fishing, gardening, or hiking. I loved not smearing sun screen all over my arms. They saved time, covered my skin, and I could douse them with my water bottle or in a creek, river or lake, and easily cool off on a hot summer ride. I could also easily stuff them into any pocket if I decided I no longer needed them or just wanted to give my skin a burst of vitamin D. If I were inked with a tattoo or two, the sleeves would provide yet another important benefit.
Yes, there were drawbacks. I burned the gap of wrist skin exposed between the sleeve and my bike gloves more than once and I learned I did not enjoy the thumb-hole variety. The fabric gathered in the space between the thumb and first finger and became tightly wedged by my riding gloves. The fabric also tended to snag easily (but I also mountain bike through shrubs and trees), and white definitely does not stay white. And yet, to not have the sun beating down on skin – what a joy and a relief!
In this second season of choosing to wear sun sleeves instead of slathering my arms with sunscreen (except at the wrists and sometimes the very tops of my arms) I am curious to try cycling-specific ones. Costing two to three times as much (or more) than ‘generic’ sleeves, sleeves made by cycling apparel companies are “shaped for the riding position and have silicone grippers to keep them from sliding down,” says The Pro’s Closet in a 2021 article covering skin protection options.
Fortunately, I have not had slippage issues on the ‘generic’ variety of sun sleeve, so the silicone grip isn’t a requirement. However, serious cyclists, or folks with larger arms than mine, which according to my dear friend Sarah resemble pencils, might prefer an arm sleeve with gripping super powers. To those folks, I say check out sleeves by Pactimo, Giordana, Castelli, Giro, and Pearl Izumi. They all come sized as well. Some have fun colors.
Which brings me to a point that Siroko cycling apparel mentioned in a blog post about cycling arm sleeve protection: does color make a difference in the sleeve’s ability to keep you cool? Nope. “The color of the fabric is actually not that important,” they say. “When we’re on a bike, we’re making a more or less intense effort and we’re exposed to air drafts. Therefore, the garment we’re wearing should – above anything else – be thin, lightweight, breathable and comfortable.”
If you’re new to wearing sun sleeves, my recommendation is to trial a few inexpensive pairs first and then commit to a higher quality sleeve based on the features that most matter to you, whether it’s a proprietary fabric weave engineered for superior breathability, the inclusion of a thumb hole for full wrist protection, color, brand, or price. If you’re a burner like me, you’ll still need sunscreen to cover your exposed skin, whether on your face, wrists, or legs (although you can also purchase sun sleeves for knees and legs).
Have a favorite brand you swear by? Drop us a line and we’ll add your recommendation to this post as they come in.