Dear HI Travel Tales,
I always buy the highest SPF I can get but I heard lately that may not be what I need. Sunscreen is so confusing. Can you help?
P.M., Flagstaff, Ariz.

Sunscreen SPF recommendations from the many brands availalble.

Which SPF is best for you when traveling?

You aren’t the only one. Therese Iknoian of HI Travel Tales conducted a major multiple-part investigation into sunscreens, manufacturing, ingredients, labels and government oversight that was published in May and June 2010 in the leading outdoor industry trade news journal, SNEWS, and she was shocked at what she learned – and found the same confusion in labels you do.

Luckily, about a year later the U.S. Food and Drug Administration finally passed guidelines and many of those will go into affect later this year – too late for this summer but of course sunscreen is not just for summer (Smaller brands have an extra year to comply with changes in labeling and packaging). To read more about what some of those packaging changes will entail, click here to find our previous HI Travel Tales story.

For now, these are our sunscreen SPF recommendations.

Just follow a few really simple rules:

  1. 30 Rocks – Don’t bother spending your money on SPFs higher than 50. Frankly, we don’t really bother with more than 30. The gains after even 30 aren’t that significant for the money you’ll dish out.
  2. Science 101 – All those chemical names are mind-boggling, for sure. To be really safe, try to stick with the products that physically block the sun’s rays and are total broad spectrum. That’s zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. There are a lot of new versions these days that won’t turn you white like Suzy Chapstick. These stay on the surface and do the best job. Others like avobenzone and oxybenzone, which chemically block, may be more irritating or just less affective due due degradation.
  3. Apply and repeat – I know, the sunscreen gurus say this over and over, but it’s no B.S. Do it.
  4. Take a dip – Without getting technical, the FDA’s methods to test water-resistance aren’t really what the public would consider water resistant, i.e. even the MOST water-resistant won’t keep sticking after about 80 minutes. And even that will depend on how much and how well you apply. Try for reapplication every 30-45 minutes if you’re getting wet.

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