Your Guide to Avoiding Sunburn During Summer 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 summer 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 levels of SPFs and active ingredients, 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” offer poor protection.

How poor? After reviewing 262 scientific studies and comparing over 1,800 labels, the EWG found that 75% 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

Used to be, you were hard-pressed to find anything above an SPF 30. Now, sunscreens come in SPFs all the way to up 100. Do they really make a difference? It depends. To understand why, you first have to understand exactly what SPF really means.

SPF is a measure of the amount of time you can stay in the sun before getting sunburned from UVB exposure. For example, if you normally start to redden or burn after five minutes in the sun, wearing an SPF 30 means it will now take you 150 minutes (5 minutes x 30 SPF) to burn. This sounds great in theory. But in reality, sunscreens are often applied too thinly, they get sweated off, and they break down over time, so they never give you quite the protection they’re supposed to.

Starting with a higher SPF can be beneficial since you’ll have a higher level of protection from the outset, but remember—that doesn’t mean you get a free ride as far as re-applying. Every sunscreen loses its effectiveness over the course of the day and reapplication is just as important as putting it on in the first place.

The Bottom Line: Reapply every two hours, and always reapply 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]

Skip the Retinyl Palmitate

Retinyl Palmitate (derived from Vitamin A) is often added to sunscreens to reduce the appearance of aging.  Similar to what is used in anti-aging Retin-A, the chemical offers no sun protection at all. 

In fact, it’s potentially more harmful than good. Because Retinyl Palmitate encourages faster cell turnover, the chemical makes your 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.

See Also: Learning to Read Your Cosmetics Label Can Save You Cash

Chemical vs. Physical: Know the Difference

Dermatologists divide sunscreens into two different categories: physical and chemical. Physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin’s surface and work by deflecting UV rays. Chemical sunscreens sink into skin’s top layer and actually absorb UV rays.

The most common ingredients in physical sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. When it comes to chemical sunscreens, there’s a much wider range of ingredients. Some of the most common include avobenzone, oxybenzone, and ecamsule (better known by its trade name, Mexoryl).

So is either physical or chemical sunscreen superior to the other? When it comes to protection, zinc oxide is the hands-down winner. It blocks the entire UV spectrum all by itself. Titanium dioxide is in second place, and both are ideal for sensitive skin as they tend to be less irritating. 

Physical sunscreens are also a better pick if you need to head outside immediately because they work promptly to reflect UV light. This is unlike chemical sunscreen, which need to be absorbed for 30 minutes before they work effectively.

Potential drawbacks? Physical sunscreens have a bad reputation for thick formulas that leave a white film on the skin. But recent technology has allowed companies to create physical sunscreens that are lightweight and sheer.

However, less appealing than a goopy face are the potential side effects of oxybenzone, an active ingredient in over half of chemical sunscreen formulas. Oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream and acts like estrogen in the body, which can trigger allergic skin reactions. Additionally, some research studies, while not conclusive, have linked higher concentrations of oxybenzone to disorders such 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 picking out 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 by the beach or 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 

The first sunscreen mistake is not wearing any. But even those of us with the best intentions can make mistakes when it comes to sunscreen—mistakes that can be costly for our skin. 

1. Using Last Year’s Leftovers

When it comes to sunscreen, expiration dates really do matter. The active ingredients in sunscreen can deteriorate over time, which means the protection won't be as effective. What's more, an open bottle is more likely to become contaminated with germs, as the preservatives meant to prevent contamination can also lose their efficacy. 

To be extra careful, read the suggested storage conditions on the label as stuffing your bottle in a glove compartment or a beach bag might be convenient, but the exposure to hot temperatures can hamper effectiveness.

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

A two-in-one foundation/sunscreen certainly seems handy, but that doesn't mean it works. Part of the problem is quantity: a dab of your foundation isn't the same as the amount of sunscreen you'd slather on your face. Makeup also wears off during the day and chances are you aren't religiously reapplying the way you should with sunscreen.

The good news? If you're bent on a two-in-one product, moisturizer with SPF does do the trick.

Don’t Depend on a Base Tan

Many people think that a base tan will protect them from both sunburns and skin cancer. Some go so far as to visit a tanning bed to achieve a sun-kissed glow in hopes of avoiding additional damage.

But as far as skin cancer protection goes? The theory is totally bogus. 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

As for protection against sunburn, though—it’s not as crazy as it sounds. That base tan color change is a sign that your skin has produced some melanin, which can help filter some of the sun’s rays. But it would offer at best an SPF of 4 (essentially: nothing useful), and won’t shield you from the sun’s carcinogenic effects or the cumulative damage that causes premature aging. [5]

What’s more, base tans also tend to offer a false sense of safety, making you think it’s OK to spend extra time in the sun or slack off on sunscreen—which leads to more sun damage (and more sunburns).

The Bottom Line: While sun-kissed skin might not burn quite as quickly as skin that’s super pale, it’s not a legitimate protection against sunburn-causing UVB rays. And, even worse, it’s a sign that you’ve already caused damage to your DNA. The only real way to keep your skin safe is to avoid tanning beds and wear sunscreen when you’re outside. 

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% protection. The best way to prevent sunburn is by limiting exposure, especially from 10 in the morning to 4 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: Shirts, hats, and pants shield your skin from the sun’s UV rays, reducing risk by 27%. Go for loose-fitting, tightly woven clothing that covers your arms and legs.

  • UV protective clothing goes the extra mile:  These clothes have a special label that tells you how effective they are in protecting your skin from ultraviolet rays.

  • Find some shade: Picnic under a tree or take a canopy to the beach. Keep infants in the shade, which can reduce the risk of multiple burns by 30%.

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

Ask Yourself These Questions Before Heading Out in the Sun

One sunburn a year might not seem very serious, but the research is clear: Repeated unprotected sun exposure, getting sunburned, or repeatedly getting tan not only causes premature signs of aging, but also causes DNA damage that triggers skin cells to mutate. Over time, and in the absence of sun protection and sun-smart behavior, these mutations can turn into skin cancers.

Repeated 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 to 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 Sunscreen Hall of Shame
  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.


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