sunscreen for surfers

Choosing the best sunscreen for surfers

Because surfers spend lots of time in direct sun as well as additional light reflected from the water and sand, they need effective ways to filter harmful UV (ultraviolet) rays. Though gear such as wetsuits, booties and surf-specific sunglasses offer added protection, the most important measure for maintaining healthy skin is a good quality water-resistant sunscreen. Scientists’ understanding of UV is constantly evolving and so are opinions on what kind of sunscreen is best. There is also the fact that surfing places different demands on products compared to typical sunbathing or outdoor activities, so the best sunscreen for surfing may differ from the best for general use.

Some quick tips on sunscreen for surfers

  • High SPF — While a bare minimum of SPF 15 is recommended for the general public, surfers spend more time on the water and should go for a number like SPF 30, 45, 55 or higher.
  • Non-greasy — You’ll also want something that isn’t going to wash away, drip into your eyes or make your skin slippery. Look for a thicker, water-resistant product.
  • Visibility — A colored sunblock containing high levels of zinc oxide or titanium oxide is useful because you can see if it’s still on and hasn’t been washed away. That said, some surfers may not be too keen on slathering their entire body in colored liquid or paste.
  • Non-polluting — Avoid chemicals and go the natural route! The Surf Channel has a list of “all-natural” sunscreens for the eco-friendly surfer. Natural sunscreens should still contain mineral ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium oxide, in order to reflect harmful rays.
  • Skincare — For cosmetically minded surfers interested in maintaining the healthiest skin possible, aside from just blocking out the sun, pro surfer Esther Hahn has a list of recommendations.
  • Sport-specific — To play it safe, you might want to try out a sunscreen that is specifically designed for surfing and other watersports. These are usually purposefully non-greasy, visible, high SPF and very water-resistant. Surfers often opt for sticks that go on the same way a solid or roll-on deodorant does.
sunscreen for surfers

Sunscreen is highly recommended even in less sunny places like England. Pic: Alex Liivet (Flickr CC)

The basics

Why should I use sunscreen?

The main concern about exposure to the sun’s harmful rays is skin cancer. Ultraviolet (UV) radiation damages skin cell DNA, causing it to mutate, which can lead to cancers like basal cell carcinoma (BCC), squamous cell carcinoma (SCC) and the most deadliest form of skin cancer, melanoma. A good sunscreen with a minimum SPF of 15 (or 30 for surfers) helps protect against UV rays, thereby reducing the risk of developing skin cancer. Besides cancer, sunscreen can help prevent visible skin damage such as premature aging of the skin. It can even lower the damage that UV rays can cause to the immune system, which is crucial for the body’s ability to fight off disease.

SPF — Sun Protection Factor

The SPF rating tells you how long you can safely stay in the sun with the product properly applied as opposed to without. As different people naturally have varying levels of melanin in their skin, there is no universal time for everyone. Those with darker skin have more natural protection than those with fairer complexions. For example, if you can be in the sun for 10 minutes until your skin burns, applying a generous layer of SPF 30 would theoretically allow you stay in the same level of sun for 300 minutes (with reapplication at least every 2 hours).

A good sunscreen should be water-resistant

This should go without saying for surfers, as a lot of solar exposure is going to take place when you’re actually in the water and on top of your board. That said, no sunscreen is waterproof and even water-resistant sunscreen will eventually come off due to being under water, from sea spray, sweating and by being rubbed off from physical activity. To remain protected, reapply every 2 hours.

Everyone should use sunscreen

While fair-skinned people have less natural protection against the sun’s harmful rays, everyone is vulnerable. Therefore, anyone spending a lot of time in the sun, especially surfers, should use sunscreen, whether you’ve got a lot of melanin or not.


Ultraviolet rays come in two main categories that surfers need to worry about: UVA and UVB. Both are invisible and both contribute to or cause skin cancer. Most ultraviolet rays we are exposed to in our lifetimes are UVA, which can pass through both clouds and glass and is present year round. Most tanning happens through exposure to UVA. UVB, which only makes up a tiny fraction of the UV radiation that reaches the Earth’s surface, is far more intense than UVA and the main cause of sunburn. UVB rays are stronger when the sun is high and direct.

sunscreen for surfers

Surf and sun in Santa Cruz, California. Pic: Archibald Jude (Flickr CC)

Chemical absorbers vs. physical filters

The majority of active ingredients in sunscreens are chemical absorbers, which form a thin layer to absorb UV radiation, preventing it from entering the skin. However, most sunscreens also contain physical filters, namely zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which reflect UV light away from the skin. People have been using zinc oxide to protect their skin from the sun’s harmful rays for thousands of years.

Is tanning OK?

Tanning is the result of damage to your skin cells’ DNA and is the body’s flawed way of preventing further damage. Tanning, whether from the sun or tanning beds, can result in long-term skin damage and skin cancer. Both UVA and UVB rays contribute to and cause skin cancer; therefore tanning should be avoided when possible.

How to apply sunscreen

Put on a layer of sunscreen to all exposed areas of skin before you go out in the sun. Apply to all exposed areas, including ears, hands, feet and top of the head for those of us who have thin or thinning hair. Reapply at least every 2 hours, after spending time in the water, and after sweating or participating in physical activity that can cause the sunscreen to rub off. Even if the product is marked as “water-proof” or water-resistant, spending time in the water will wash away and diminish the sunscreen’s efficacy. Surfers should apply about 2 tablespoons of sunscreen before going out into the sun and at least 30 minutes before going into the water.

Price vs. efficacy

How much your sunscreen costs does not necessarily have any effect on how well it works. A generic can be just as good as a name brand or a “surfing specific” product as long as it contains the necessary ingredients to keep your skin safe. Look for a very water-resistant sunscreen that is at least SPF 30 and broad-spectrum, meaning it filters both UVA and UVB rays. Some medical professionals recommend name brands, due to their tendency to invest in their reputations, but this is more an opinion based on a general business practices than scientific knowledge.

Is sunscreen enough?

Those who are more susceptible to the sun’s rays should not only rely on sunscreen for protection. Hats, wetsuits, sunglasses, etc., are all additional ways to protect your skin. People with fair skin and hair are the most vulnerable, especially redheads (ginger-haired) and light blondes.

Does sunscreen expire?

Most sunscreens have a shelf life of about 2 to 3 years and should have an expiration date printed somewhere on the bottle or tube. If you haven’t used your sunscreen for a while, make sure you check the date.

For more specific brand recommendations, check out Mellow Waves and The Active Times. Also check this Surfline article on sunscreen for women surfers.

Remember to use plenty of sunscreen and stay safe!

sunscreen for surfers

High SPF sunscreen products. Pic: Jeff Wilcox (Flickr CC)


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