Travel sunscreen safety update: Which is the best sunscreen?

by May 14, 2019Health

Every spring as the summer sun gets higher in the skies, questions come up again about sunscreen safety, and the question is asked yet again, which is the best sunscreen for travel?

In 2019, a study in a respected medical journal released just in time for the “sun season” indicated many of sunscreen’s top ingredients are absorbed into your skin within 24 hours. And that made a splashy headline about sunscreen safety. Tweets and posts flew around cyberspace in a panic about finding the best sunscreen.

Although these ingredients are apparently absorbed, “The demonstration of systemic absorption well above the FDA guideline does not mean these ingredients are unsafe,” wrote editors at the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) – since they just don’t know!

Also important when it comes to sun safety, especially for travelers, is the prevalence of skin cancers: Researchers noted that skin cancer is the most common malignancy in the United States, making using sunscreen (or wearing sun protective clothing) more important than not – especially if you are doing a lot of touring outside and in sunny months.

Michael getting sun protection with a Sol Cool Hoodie, a hat and sunscreen on the face.

Perfect sun protection. Michael is wearing a hat, sunglasses and a Sol Cool shirt from ExOfficio and his face is slathered in sun screen.

New proposed FDA rules for sunscreen safety

Despite the importance of choosing the best sunscreen and practicing sun safety for travelers, the United States Food and Drug Administration, which approves sunscreen, has been very slow in taking action. In fact, the last time it updated and improves guidelines was in 2011, which we wrote about in a then-apt named story, “Sunscreen confusion solved.”

Of course, it wasn’t really solved, and JAMA editors noted in the above editorial that accompanied the 2019 study on absorption that the FDA is stymied by the lack of real knowledge about sunscreen safety. (To be fair, the FDA did pass the so-called “Sunscreen Innovation Act” in 2014 to provide an alternative process to review the safety and effectiveness of sunscreens.)

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Now, just in time for travel and sun season, the FDA in 2019 has also proposed another round of new regulations to increase sunscreen safety. The proposals include:

  • Noting very clearly which ingredients are considered safe (only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) and which are not generally considered safe and which do not have sufficient evidence to say.
  • Delineating amounts to use and “dosage” for sprays, oils, lotions, creams, etc.
  • Considering raising the highest SPF (Sun Protection Factor) allowed on labels from 50+ to 60+.
  • Requiring broad spectrum protection.
  • Mandating more understandable labels.
  • Stating that sunscreens combined with insect repellents are not safe.
HITT Tip: If you click on the FDA link discussing its 2019 proposal rule, you can geek out on sunscreen by following links and reading FDA blogs and perusing science materials and guides.

So what is the best sunscreen and how do I choose?

The truisms in our “Sunscreen confusion solved” story still hold true. Here are a few:

  • If you are worried about chemical absorption, then stick to the only two ingredients considered safe: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Why are they considered safe sunscreen? They are natural and they only sit on your skin and act as a barrier.
HITT Tip: We have found brands such as Sunology, Cotz and Thinksport to be reliable, plus others like Beyond Coastal have specific lines with just zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.
  • ONLY use broad spectrum for the ultimate in sun safety. The two ingredients above are just that in their protection from UVA and UVB rays.
  • Go for at least 30 SPF but not necessarily 50+.
  • Do not forget to reapply. Buy smaller tubes you can carry with you when traveling and touring so you can’t blame not having it along. And remember that NO sunscreen is waterproof.
  • Do not use combinations like sunscreen and bug repellent.
  • Wear sunscreen even in the shade, due to reflection.
  • When it comes to the ingredients named in the JAMA study, you have to weigh out your preferences: These are in many popular sunscreens and make them “creamier” and easier to put on, to be honest. There is less of a tendency to turn your skin white or to have it caught up in arms hairs in white globs. The bottom line is, the best sunscreen for sun safety is in fact a sunscreen you will wear.

What about coral reef safety and sunscreen?

One hears constantly that sunscreen chemicals are not safe for coral reefs and are destroying them. Science does not seem to be conclusive on that, with the International Coral Reef Foundation even saying as much in a 2018 report. Nevertheless, the foundation still says to beware and continue to use so-called “reef-friendly” sunscreens (one factor is not including the ingredient oxybenzone).

Therese wearing sun protective clothing underwater in Fiji.

Even underwater, skimming over reefs while snorkeling, Therese is protecting her skin with sun protective clothing on her top.

One thing water lovers and reef lovers can do as a part of sunscreen safety around reefs is to cover up with sun-protective clothing rather than slathering the entire body with sunscreen.

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17 Comments

  1. I appreciate all the information in this article. Sunscreen and protecting our oceans is so important!

    Reply
  2. I recently heard about all the harmful chemicals in sunscreen and was looking for new alternatives. I have been using sunscreen from a new brand called Amavara. It’s a Unique Reef-Safe Sunscreen‎, but it’s a little on the pricey side 🙂

    Reply
    • well, yes, the zinc and titanium types do tend to be more expensive. but in this case you do get what you pay for. We did not know that brand and it sounds nice! there is a newer wave of zinc and titanium types that DO rub in and that is all good. One disadvantage is its fragrance since if you are in “bug” country that will attract ’em. thanks for sharing

      Reply
  3. A very well articulated and methodically put article. Thank you for sharing this and raising awareness. It’s important that people understand. Only then we can think about choosing the right course of action on our own.

    Reply
  4. Woot Woot – I just started using La Roche-Posay this year and love it. It is a bit thinner and easy to apply (in the past I often wandered around with white spots of unrubbed in sunscreen…) Thanks for this informative and useful article. Why we were ever “allowed” to slather unhealthy chemicals onto our bodies in the name of sun protection is beyond me.

    Reply
    • HI there, I presume you are talking about the Zinc Oxide one, right? if so, good on you!

      Reply
  5. As someone who has already had skin cancer twice (beginning in her 30s), it’s unsettling to read all of the news lately about how certain sunscreens may actually be harmful. By the way, why shouldn’t you combine sunscreen and bug repellent? ~ Sage Scott, the Everyday Wanderer

    Reply
  6. It seems like the most effective sunscreen varies from person to person. I’m the color of a piece of paper – I just look at the sun and immediately turn into a lobster! So finding an effective sunscreen is super important for me! Honestly I’ve never had much luck with more natural sunscreens, so I’ve always just weighed “do I want toxic sunscreen or do I want skin cancer?” Sad but lol

    Reply
  7. Great information! Thanks so much for sharing. I’ve just started utilizing my pool again after two years and will definitely be paying closer attention to the intense Florida sunshine and wearing adequate protection. I needed those suggestions. 😉

    Reply
    • Oh my, Florida sun! but remember it’s not just about protection IN the sun and IN the summer! but also in the shade and all year long!

      Reply
  8. Love that you wrote this article! It’s really important to not only protect your body but also the coral reefs!

    Reply
  9. Extremely engaging article. Especially since I’m ahem…terrible at wearing sunscreen (I know, I know…shhh!!!). It’s hard because I’ve never burned in my entire life. I hate the time it takes to put it on and the aftertaste that somehow always gets in my mouth (despite never putting it on my mouth). But not ever burning means nothing and the hassle is NOTHING compared to the dangers so I have to be better about using it. I had NO idea that using sunscreen and insect repellant isn’t safe. Why is that? Also, the FDA is limiting the highest SPF to 50-60+? Meaning they can no longer put SPF 100 on there? I’ve heard that beyond a certain point there isn’t any added protection anyway. True? Quite an interesting and helpful article!

    Reply
    • hey Heather! that’s funny about getting in your mouth — if you use the “thicker” zinc and dioxide, it likely won’t! the thinnier, lotion-like stuff tends to run more. RE: SPFs — as they get higher the amount of increased protection you get goes down exponentially. Thus, you pay a lot more for verrrrry little more. don’t bother. And the 100s (at least in the US) haven’t been allowed in a long time. Bug/Sun combos: all chemicals and wear only what you need. Dosage and reapplications are different as well as need so no need to double up on chemicals you don’t. Cover up!

      Reply
  10. This is such great advice. My dad has had skin cancer much of his life so I’m adamant that the kids wear proper sunscreen. It’s hard as they get older. Your post sent me off to check our regular brand that we purchase here in Canada to make sure it’s safe for us. Thanks!

    Reply
    • Hi Joanne, every country has different rules and different ingredients. we can’t say much about Canada’s. Check with its equivalent of the FDA. For example, in Australia where skin cancer is a HUGE issue, they are honestly more advanced; you can buy other ingredients that are very good.

      Reply

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