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, 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.

Want to read many thousands of words from my “Getting Burned” investigation into sunscreen from 2010 in SNEWS, the insider trade news service I formerly owned and ran with my HI Travel Tales business partner (and husband) Michael Hodgson? Just click on this link to the first part. Links to other parts are at the bottom of this first story.

In addition, you’ll find basic how-to’s in a follow-up story that ran in the trade news journal SNEWS on June 14, 2010, after I was asked repeatedly the simple question, “Which sunscreen is best.” Granted, this isn’t the easiest question to answer. And this story is now two years old, so products, information and formulations may have changed. Click here to access that.

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Therese Iknoian

Traveler at HI Travel Tales
Little did her parents know that a short trip to Europe in high school would launch a lifetime love of travel, languages and cultures. Trained as a news journalist, Therese Iknoian spent a decade as a daily newspaper journalist before launching a freelance writing career specializing in outdoor, fitness and training. All the while trotting the globe, her focus finally turned to travel. Fluent in German, Therese runs a translation business ( working primarily with companies in the outdoor/sports/retail industry. Also a French speaker, she loves to learn a bit of the language wherever she goes -- gdje je kupaonica? Мне нужна помощь! -- often embarrassing herself in the quest for cross-cultural communication and the search for great travel discoveries.
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