Sunscreen for Travelers: The Ultimate Guide

Updated August 28, 2022.

I’m an island girl at heart. Give me the sunshine and an ocean breeze anytime, every time! But I’m also prone to sunburn and have a history of skin cancer in my family, so enjoying the sun safely is always a priority for me. So, I teamed up with my dermatologist, U.S. Navy veteran Dr. Megan Brelsford, DO, FAAD to answer all my questions, and hopefully yours!

What is SPF and What Does It Mean?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. Basically, the SPF number on your sunscreen is relative to how long it would take your skin to burn. The higher the SPF, the more time you can spend in the sun without burning. Dr. Brelsford recommends an SPF of 50, but everyone should be using at least SPF 30. You can read more about it on the FDA website.

However, no matter what your SPF is, it’s only as effective as how you actually use it. Are you letting it soak in for 15 minutes? Are you reapplying every couple of hours? Make sure you’re applying correctly!

Few things make a trip more uncomfortable than a preventable sunburn!
Read on: How to Practice Self Care on Travel

Natural vs. Chemical Sunscreen

What is “natural” sunscreen? Well, no one knows! There is not a federally regulated or agreed-upon definition of “natural” as it pertains to sunscreen. But basically, “natural” sunscreens include minerals in place of chemicals.

Sunscreen minerals are zinc oxide, iron oxide, or titanium dioxide, and they work by sitting on top of the skin to literally reflect the sun’s UV rays off of you. Here are some other quick facts.

  • They are more durable and stable than chemical sunscreens.
  • Mineral sunscreens are safe for use around the eyes.
  • Mineral sunscreens are better for sensitive skin types.
  • Zinc has the broadest UV range protection compared to its chemical counterparts.
  • These sunscreens can leave a white cast or residue on the skin, but recent developments in mineral sunscreens have mitigated that.
  • These minerals are considered “reef safe.”

Sunscreen chemicals are avobenzone, octinoxate, and oxybenzone, and they work by absorbing into the skin, and in turn absorbing the UV rays. Here are a few more details to remember.

  • Can be harsh on sensitive skin types.
  • Not as stable or durable.
  • Because they absorb into the skin, they do not leave a white cast or residue like many mineral sunscreens.
  • Octinoxate and oxybenzone have been shown to cause damage to coral reef systems, which has prompted Hawaii to ban the sale of these sunscreens in the state. Others may follow suit.
I’m slowly bringing my husband over to the mineral side…
Keep reading: How to Travel and Still Have Good Hygiene

Solid vs. Lotion vs. Spray Sunscreen

If you’ve read any of my posts about packing for summery destinations, you know I am a huge fan of solid sunscreens! Dr. Brelsford has some strong opinions, too. She says that, essentially, it comes down to how diligent you are when you use them. No matter which you choose, working with a partner or travel buddy is best to make sure you get to those hard-to-reach areas like your back.


Solid sunscreens are just as effective as their non-solid counterparts, but they can be more difficult to spread. Make sure you are swiping it on, then rubbing it around to both spread it and to let it soak into the skin. Pro tip: I rub some onto the palms of my hands, then rub it on my face and hard-to-reach areas like my back.


Lotions are easiest to spread, and easiest to work into smaller spaces like behind your ears. It’s important to use enough, though, so don’t skimp!


Dr. Brelsford does not recommend spray sunscreens, and actually, her reasons are the same as my reasons for not using them! You have to use a lot, as in, you need to be soaking in that spray to make sure you’re getting the right coverage. The reason it can be an aerosol spray is because of all the extra liquid (alcohol), so you’re actually getting less sunscreen than it seems, which is why you need to be coated in it so much. You also still need to rub it in, which is one of the reasons people choose spray sunscreens–because they think they don’t have to rub it in.

Additionally, you should not apply it inside because you’ll be breathing in too much of the sunscreen that goes into the air around you, instead of getting it all on your skin. But when you apply the spray outdoors, a lot of the spray gets blown into the air, and you’re still breathing too much of it inside you. Skip the spray!

You can choose your preference, just make sure you’re applying it effectively!
More here: Your Ultimate Guide to Solid Toiletries for Travel

Ingredients to Avoid

Since 2011, the FDA has required sunscreen ingredients to be clearly noted on the sunscreen container. These are the ingredients that Dr. Brelsford recommends looking to avoid:

  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA): Naturally occuring in B-complex vitamins, but can cause skin irritation, and when used in sunscreen, it must be combined with other synthetic materials to absorb the sun’s rays.
  • Benzene: This is a known carcinogen, and was recently found in a variety of sunscreens that were then recalled.
  • Trolamine Salicylate: This has been found to irritate skin allergies and increase sensitivities to light.
It’s easier than ever to find natural options, especially for sunscreen!
Keep reading: 10 Essential Blog Posts All Travelers Need to Read

Tips for Applying

All this info is great, right? But the really important part is how you use your sunscreen! So here are the best tips for applying sunscreen correctly.

Follow a pattern.

Apply your sunscreen the same way every time, so you don’t miss a spot or forget where you already put it. I start with my legs and work my way up from there: lower legs and feet, thighs, stomach, lower back, chest and neck (front and back!), shoulders and arms, upper back, then face and ears.

Apply a thick coat.

Don’t go to the extreme here, but definitely put on enough so that the appropriate amount soaks in.

Wait 8 minutes after applying before putting on clothes.

Studies have shown that letting your sunscreen (mineral or chemical) soak in for eight minutes before putting on your clothes ensures that you won’t rub off what you just put on.

Wait 15 minutes after application before going into the sun.

Yes, it’s true, that 15-minute soak-in window is essential before sun, water, or sweat exposure. And yes, that first eight minutes before you put your clothes on counts toward that 15 minutes!

Put bug repellent on after sunscreen has soaked into the skin.

I got this tip from a travel immunization nurse several years ago, when I was going through a series of vaccinations before my trip to Cambodia. Put your sunscreen on first, allow 15 minutes for it to soak in, and then apply your bug repellent!

Reapply every two hours.

I know, this isn’t my favorite either! You should, however, reapply your sunscreen every two hours, and more often if you’re actively in the water.

Don’t forget your ears, hands, and lips!

I once got a terrible ear sunburn–as in, inside my ear– because I fell asleep on Myrtle Beach. Now, I always make sure to apply sunscreens to my ears! Your hands need sunscreen, too, though it’s super tempting to wash your hands afterward. Apply it to your hands back-to-back at a minimum. I have also had some pretty uncomfortable lip burns in the past. Make sure you get the tops, back, and even the inside of your ears, and use a lip balm with an SPF like the one below:

Other sun protection options.

Don’t forget that you can also use a hat, UPF (ultravioolet protection factor) fabrics, and UV sunglasses for even more protection, especially if you’ll be in the sun for an extended period of time.

Read next: 7 Travel Rules You Don’t Know Until Someone Tells You

Trusted Sunscreen Brands

Dr. Brelsford gave me a great run-down of some of her preferred sunscreens, and I’m including some of my favorites, too! Some of the links in this post are affiliate links with Amazon. That means when you click the links to shop with me, you’ll be supporting my small business at no additional cost to you!

Elta MD

Vana Cream



Blue Lizard Sensitive



La Roche-Posay


My favorite natural deodorant brand, Native, has started making sunscreen! It goes on smoothly, spreads well, the coconut & pineapple scent is amazing, and most importantly, it works! Their facial sunscreen is great, too!

Related: What to Pack for Your Beach Vacation

Huge thanks to Dr. Brelsford at Verum Cutis Dermatology in Ashburn, VA! If you are in the D.C., Northern Virginia, or Maryland areas, I highly recommend her practice.

For more about toiletries (like sunscreen!) on travel, be sure to check out my Packing Page! And for all things travel and health-related, be sure to peruse my Health and Wellness Page as well.

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