What are the best sunscreens for swimming and sports?

Wearing sunscreen is important on a daily basis, but it is even more imperative that you apply (and reapply!) sunscreen while swimming or playing sports outdoors.

As a dermatologist, I often get asked questions like, “Which sunscreen is the best for outdoor activities and swimming?” While there is no single best answer to this question, there are a few guidelines you can follow when choosing a sunscreen for outdoor fun this summer.

Choose Physical Sunscreen When Possible

In previous columns, I have touched on the differences between physical and chemical sunscreens, as well as the potential for allergic reactions and absorption into the bloodstream with chemical SPFs. Try to choose a physical sunscreen that contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, rather than chemical ingredients like oxybenzone and octyl methoxycinnamate.

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Oxybenzone has been found to be bad for coral and was recently banned in Hawaii. Many people have an allergy to octyl methoxycinnamate. Another popular chemical sunscreen, avobenzone, is known to cause eye irritation and burning.

Instead of a chemical sunscreen, look for a physical sunscreen such as EltaMD Physical SPF, PCA Weightless Protection Broad Spectrum SPF, Obagi Sunshield, or Neutrogena Sheer Zinc that use zinc as the sun protection ingredient. If you play golf, tennis or other sports where you don’t want your hands to become greasy and slippery from reapplying your sunscreen, use a spray SPF. However, you might want to have a lotion or stick on hand for your face, since a spray can get in your eyes.

If you sweat a lot or plan to be in the water, choose a “water-resistant” sunscreen. It will say “water-resistant 40 minutes” or “water-resistant 80 minutes” on the bottle. This means that it has been tested according to FDA standards and shown to keep your skin protected for either 40 or 80 minutes of swimming or excessive sweating. You still need to reapply water-resistant sunscreens after getting in the water. It is better to pat the skin dry than rub with a towel because rubbing removes most of the sunscreen from the skin.

Try an Antioxidant Supplement

If you spend a lot of time outdoors, especially in sunny summer months, you can take an antioxidant supplement like Heliocare for added UV protection. It contains a fern extract called polypodium leucotomos, which has been shown to reduce skin inflammation and redness caused by sun exposure. However, you still need to apply SPF to your skin, even if you add an antioxidant supplement to your diet.

Don’t Forget Your Lips

Unlike the rest of your skin, your lips do not produce sebum (oil), which naturally contains vitamin E, a powerful antioxidant. Therefore, your lips need all the sun protection they can get, so don’t forget to apply a lip balm that contains SPF. Again, it is best to choose a physical SPF for your lips, because we end up ingesting as much as 70 percent of the products we put on our lips, especially when swimming or sweating from sports. I love the lip sunscreens by Fresh, Coola, Burt’s Bees and Paula’s Choice.

Bottom line

There is no single best sunscreen for water sports and outdoor activities. However, it is important to choose your sunscreen based on what you’ll be doing that day. For example, you wouldn’t necessarily use the same 80-minute water-resistant sunscreen with a high SPF for daily use when you don’t plan to be outside for more than 30 minutes. In the same regard, you shouldn’t use your daily SPF15 when you plan to be out on the golf course for 18 holes.

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