How to Avoid Sunburn on Your Vacation

Whether you’re off to a tropical beach getaway or tromping around unshaded streets on a city tour, it’s easy to forget the importance of sun protection when looking forward to a carefree holiday. Add to the mix an unfamiliar climate and elevation, and many travelers find that they’ve overestimated their tolerance for mid-day rays.

While sunburn might seem like only a temporary irritation, just one can cause long-lasting damage to your skin. Children are especially at risk, with studies showing that as little as one sunburn in our early years can nearly double a person’s chances of developing melanoma later in life. [1]

To help you avoid looking and feeling like a cooked lobster, here is our guide to avoiding sunburn during your vacation.

Choose Your Sunscreen Wisely

It’s not as easy as grabbing a tube of sunscreen from the drugstore shelf and calling it a day. With so many different SPF levels and active ingredients available, choosing a sunscreen can be confusing as heck. 

Six years ago, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) examined some of the most popular sunscreens on the market and made a startling discovery. Many products that claim to be “Dermatologist Recommended” offered poor protection.

How poor? After reviewing 262 scientific studies and comparing over 1,800 labels, the EWG found that 75 percent of those sunscreens on store shelves did not meet their standards for skin protection. [2] Here are several claims and ingredients the EWG says consumers should look out for:

SPF Values: Higher Doesn’t Mean More Longer Protection

Formally known as sun protection factor, SPF is a number that represents “the product's ability to screen or block out the sun's [UVB] burning rays.”

According to the FDA, though, a common misconception is that this number relates to the solar exposure time it delivers. In other words, you’ll often read that you should figure out how long it takes your skin to start burning after five to 10 minutes of exposure to UV radiation and then multiply this number by the sunscreen’s SPF.

Here’s an admittedly simplistic example of this thought process: If it takes your skin 20 minutes to redden in the sun and you apply a sunscreen with SPF 15, this will give you 300 minutes, or five hours, before burning (20 x 15 = 300). However, the FDA emphasizes that:

“SPF is not directly related to time of solar exposure but to amount of solar exposure. Although solar energy amount is related to solar exposure time, there are other factors that impact the amount of solar energy. For example, the intensity of the solar energy impacts the amount.”

In layman’s terms, the amount of solar energy released between 1 and 1:15 pm is the same as between 9 and 10 am. All things being equal, this means that applying the same sunscreen under the same conditions at 1 pm would only be 25 percent as effective as applying it at 9 am.

But, the reality is that conditions are never the same, and sunscreen is often applied inappropriately or too thinly (or not often enough), or has its effectiveness prematurely reduced by sweating or swimming, or simply from the normal break down over time.

» For Further Reading: The Best Sunscreen Buying Guide as Recommended by Experts

The Bottom line: SPF only represents a relative measurement of any sunscreen’s ability to protect against UV rays, when compared to other sunscreens—not the length of time it provides UV protection for your skin. To achieve maximum protection regardless of the SPF, be sure to reapply every two hours, and always after sweating or swimming. 

Spray Sunscreens: Not For Kids

One in every four sunscreens in EWG’s “Hall of Shame” database is a spray. [3] Particularly popular with parents because they’re easy squirt on squirming kids and hard-to-reach areas. However, aerosol sunscreens may pose serious inhalation risks. There are also concerns that spray-on sunscreens make it too easy to apply too little or to miss a spot.

The Bottom line: While spray-on sunscreen is certainly better than none, the FDA has expressed doubts about their safety and effectiveness and urges parents to reconsider using them on children. [4]

» For Further Reading: Best Sunscreen for Babies and Kids Buying Guide

Skip the Retinyl Palmitate

Retinyl Palmitate in sunscreen is potentially more damaging than it is beneficial since it’s been shown to encourage faster cell turnover and make skin more sensitive to potential sun damage.

The Bottom line: Creams with vitamin A can do wonders for your skin when applied at night; just keep them out of your beach bag.

Chemical vs. Physical: Know the Difference

Writing for, Stephanie Huszar explains that “Dermatologists divide sunscreens into two different categories: physical and chemical.

“Physical sunscreens,” she reports, “sit on top of the skin’s surface and work by deflecting UV rays,” while “chemical sunscreens sink into skin’s top layer and actually absorb UV rays.”

Although zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the two most common physical sunscreen ingredients, a much broader list exists for chemical sunscreen ingredients, which commonly include “avobenzone, oxybenzone, and ecamsule (better known by its trade name, Mexoryl).”

The next logical question is: Which of these ingredient types offers the best protection?

Eric Schweiger, M.D., founder of Schweiger Dermatology in New York, who was interviewed for the article, gave the prize to zinc oxide, since it blocks the entire UV spectrum, and tends to be less irritating—and therefore ideal for sensitive skin.

And like all physical sunscreens (including titanium dioxide), it begins reflecting UV light as soon as it’s applied, whereas chemical ingredients take about 30 minutes to absorb and deliver full protection. What’s more, many companies now offer physical sunscreen formulas that apply lightweight, and are sheer instead of pasty white.

However, less appealing than a goopy face are the potential side effects of oxybenzone, an active ingredient in over half of chemical sunscreen formulas.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), oxybenzone “penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body,” which can “trigger allergic skin reactions. Some research studies, while not conclusive, have linked higher concentrations of oxybenzone to health disorders, including as endometriosis in older women and lower birth weights in newborn girls.”

The Bottom line: The best sunscreen formula is the one that you’ll wear all day, every day. Be prepared to test out several formulas to find the one that works for your skin.

The EWG’s Tips for Picking Good Sun Protection

With so many different formulas available, what should you look for when choosing a sunscreen?

  • Active ingredients that include zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, Mexoryl SX or avobenzone (3%) offer the best protection.
  • SPF 15 to 50, depending on your skin tone and the intensity of the sun that you’ll be exposed to.
  • Lotions, not sprays or powders, offer the most consistent protection.
  • Water-resistant sunscreens are best for time spent on the beach or by the pool.

To view the EWG’s list of best sunscreens from A to Z, check out their list here.

Avoid These Common Sunscreen Application Mistakes 

When it comes to sunscreen—making a mistake might initially seem harmless, but it could be costly for your skin.

1. Using Last Year’s Leftovers

Whether physical or chemical, the ingredients found in any sunscreen’s formula will degrade and lose their protective abilities over time. This is to say nothing of potential bacteria contamination caused by a combination of frequent use, along with preservatives that lose their effectiveness.

One of the best actions you can take to maximize your sunscreen’s lifespan is to avoid exposure to extreme hot or cold temperatures. And as always, be sure to read and follow the bottle’s storage suggestions.

2. Not Using Enough

When it comes to sunscreen, less is not more. Many of us don't use enough, which means the white stuff can't live up to its full protective potential. The classic rule of thumb is to slather on about a shot glass full of sunscreen to cover the whole body. When in doubt? Add more.

3. Depending on the SPF in Your Makeup

Most women don’t apply SPF-containing makeup thick enough to achieve adequate UV protection, which also tends to wear off during the day and further reduce this ability. As such, with the potential exception a moisturizer with SPF, many skincare professionals emphasize that two-in-one makeup won’t do the trick.

» For Further Reading: Best Face Sunscreen Buying Guide

Don’t Depend on a Base Tan

According to John Lowe, MPH, Ph.D., head of the School of Health and Sports Sciences at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia:

“When your skin starts to change color, that’s a sign that harmful UVB rays have already damaged the DNA in your skin cells. DNA damage causes cell mutations that can, in some cases, grow and multiply into skin cancer. Tanning to protect yourself from skin cancer is like smoking to protect yourself from lung cancer—it doesn’t make sense.”

See Also: 6 Tanning Myths You Might Still Believe

He goes on to explain that a change in skin color, which is caused by melanin production, can provide up to “an SPF of 4,” although he classifies this as “essentially nothing useful” and emphasizes that it “won’t shield you from the sun’s carcinogenic effects or premature aging.”

In addition, it’s easy to think that a darker base will allow you to safely spend additional time in the sun, potentially causing unwanted burning and subsequent skin damage.

The Bottom line: Depending on your point of view, a ‘base tan’ might look more attractive, and we’ve seen that one can slightly slow down the rate at which skin burns. However, it is a sign that you’ve already damaged your DNA, and it’s not considered adequate protection against future burning.

Additional Tips on Avoiding Sunburn During Summer Vacation

Regular sunscreen application is an important piece of your skincare regimen, but it can’t be depended on to offer 100 percent protection. The best way to prevent sunburn is by limiting exposure, especially from 10 in the morning to four in the afternoon when the sun’s rays are strongest.

Follow these extra tips to avoid ruining your vacation with a painful burn:

  • Cover skin with clothes: Some estimates indicate that the UV ray-shielding ability of shirts, hats, and pants can reduce your risk of sunburn by 27 percent. Go for clothes that fit loosely, are tightly woven, and that fully cover your arms and legs.

  • UV protective clothing goes the extra mile: Also known as ‘sun safe’ clothing, these garments feature weaves that can deliver between SPF 3 and SPF 115.

  • Find some shade: Whether under natural sources like trees or under something you brought yourself, like a canopy. Keeping infants in the shade can reduce their risk of experiencing multiple burns by as much as 30 percent.

  • Wear sunglasses and a hat: Not just fashion accessories, sunglasses shade your eyes from UV rays while a hat can protect your scalp and face.

Ask Yourself These Questions Before Heading Out in the Sun

Even just one sunburn a year is enough to cause premature signs of aging to appear, as well as cause DNA damage that triggers skin cell mutations. And when repeated over time, this can lead to skin cancer.

Regular sun exposure and sunburn have long-term aesthetic effects, too, ranging from brown spots, rough skin and/or uneven skin tone, thin, crepe-like skin, white spots, and sagging. None of that is a fair tradeoff for going without sunscreen and enduring sunburn.

To avoid sunburn, ask yourself these questions before heading outdoors:

  • Have you checked the expiration date on your sunscreen?
  • Do you know how much sunscreen to apply before going outside, and how often to reapply?
  • Are you avoiding the sun during peak hours, typically 10:00 a.m.–4:00 p.m.?
  • Are you relying only on sunscreen, and not wearing protective clothing, a hat, and sunglasses?
  • Are you seeking shade whenever possible?
  • Is your skin becoming darker or turning pink, but you're not doing anything to get it out of direct sunlight?

Knowing these questions in mind is your best weapon for avoiding sunburn during your next vacation, keeping your skin healthy for years to come!

How to Get a Golden Glow Before Going on Vacation

Don’t let sunburn put a damper on your outdoor fun! Fake tanning solutions have improved leaps and bounds since the days of providing only a limited range of iodine-orange color. To learn more, read our guide: How to Find the Best Self-Tanner for Your Skin Tone.


  1. Skin Cancer Foundation: Sunburns
  2. EWG's 2015 Guide to Sunscreens
  3. EWG 2015 Sunscreen Hall of Shame (This URL is no longer active)
  4. FDA Warns Parents Not to Use Spray Sunscreen on Kids
  5. Ask the Expert: Will getting a tan before going to a sunny environment protect me?

Autumn Yates

Autumn draws from a reporting background and years of experience working remotely, while living abroad, to focus on topics in travel, beauty, and online safety.