Outdoor Skills and Advice: The Sunscreen Checklist – Six Tips to Protect Your Skin

By Contributing Writer Aparna Rajagopal-Durbin, faculty member and Diversity & Inclusion Manager at the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS)

To me, the sun in the Wind River Range means bluebird skies and long, balmy days. But to the intense Rocky Mountain sun, I’m just a strip of bacon on a frying pan. My local pharmacy has an entire aisle of sunscreens on its summer display, a motley crew of bottles of all shapes and sizes from SPF 10 to 100 replete with descriptors like “ultra defense,” “waterproof,” “sweat proof,” and “broad band” on the labels. These words are sometimes cryptic (what does an “ultra” sunscreen do?), but strangely, I’m drawn to the bottles with the most descriptors on them.

Just when I’m about to buy the biggest, most colorful bottle with the most words on it in preparation for my five-week expedition, the FDA swoops in to my rescue. This month, after over 30 years without sunscreen regulation, the FDA finally stepped in, regulating against bonus claims like “waterproof” and requiring protection against a broader range of ultraviolet radiation. After a little research and a conversation with Tod Schimelpfenig, Curriculum Director for the Wilderness Medicine of NOLS, I’ve got a handy checklist to take to the pharmacy.

1. Use SPF 30 to 50.
In its new regulations, the FDA recommends a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 to 50. It recommends not using sunscreens with a SPF value greater than 50, which do not provide significantly greater protection (again, debunking my “more is better” philosophy).

2. Does it have broad spectrum protection?
Sunscreens traditionally have protected against ultraviolet B (UVB) radiation, which causes sunburns, but have not protected against ultraviolet A (UVA) radiation, which can cause wrinkles and skin cancer. Starting next year, if a bottle is labeled “SPF 50,” it must provide a sun protection factor of 50 against both UVA and UVB radiation. But until then, make sure the bottle says “broad spectrum” protection.

3. What is the active ingredient?
Zinc and titanium dioxide are still the best. Worried about that clown/lifeguard look and smell? Tod says newer “micronized” zinc preparations are transparent and comfortable to wear. Z-COTE® transparent zinc oxide covers virtually the entire ultraviolet spectrum and also has the advantage of being non-allergenic.

4. Is it water resistant?
While labels can no longer claim the sunscreen is “waterproof" or “sweat proof," a water resistant sunscreen will ensure you are not just pouring it down the drain.

5. Apply early, often, and completely.
Stay on top of sun protection, applying before you are exposed, often enough in environments where you are exposed to water or sweating, and on all of your exposed bits. That includes the top of your ears, your temples, and even bald spots on your head.

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6. Cover up!
Our culture pressures us to expose ourselves to the sun so we can sport bronze bods. But we could take a lesson from other cultures who live in hot and sunny climates. A thin long-sleeved shirt and wide-brimmed hat are the ultimate protection against the sun.

This shopping excursion is going to be easier than I thought. Pharmacist, I’ll order a cute Western-style polypro long-sleeve hiking top and a wide-brimmed hat with a grande SPF 50 broad band water-resistant transparent zinc oxide sunscreen on the side, please!

To hear more about the FDA’s regulations, listen to NPR’s On Point segment on the subject.

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