There are a lot of sunscreen brands out there that are surf specific these days, so it can be hard to pick one out. If you’ve found yourself staring at the shelves without a clue what to buy, this guide is for you.
Sunscreen is so, so important. I wish I could go back in time and tell my younger self this, as I ended up with a basal cell carcinoma skin cancer on my nose by age 30! It was almost certainly caused by sun exposure from surfing. I now cake as much sunscreen on my face as I can and you’ll often see me in a full wetsuit even if it’s hot out just to protect my skin.
In the meantime, I have educated myself enormously on sunscreen science and ingredients in a quest to provide myself the absolute best and safest skin protection for the rest of my life.
The TL;DR of this article is this: For surfing I only go for very high percentage zinc oxide sunscreens. Zinc oxide provides the largest UVA and UVB coverage, is natural, and does not harm reefs.
Using an SPF of at least 30 is definitely a requirement for being out in the surf. 30 SPF will block 97% of the sun’s rays. SPF 50 blocks 98%. There is no sunblock that can block 100% of UV rays. High SPF sunscreens do not last longer than lower SPFs, so SPF is not a factor in reapplication times. In other words, that SPF 100 is not doing much more than an SPF 30 and you still need to reapply.
Because you’re in the water the sun and UV rays are being reflected at you from all sorts of angles. Plus, surf sessions tend to be long – about 1-2 hours for most people. That’s a long time, and sun exposure can add up quite quickly.
In addition to SPF factor you’ll want to make sure that there is broad spectrum protection (meaning UVA and UVB rays).
Water Resistant / Surf Specific
There’s no totally waterproof sunscreen, but there are sunscreens that are water resistant. The thing is, the water resistant specifications can vary. Many sunscreens will tell you to reapply after a certain amount of time if you’re in the water.
A lot of surf-specific sunscreens go on like thick foundation and do not wash off very easily. This is much better than your average drugstore sunscreen. If you’re using fancy drugstore sunscreen it might not be robust enough to withstand all the water you’ll encounter while surfing and could prematurely wash off.
Chemical Vs Mineral
Looking at the ingredients in your sunscreen is a very good idea. Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the UV rays like a sponge. Chemicals such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate use this kind of technology. These types of sunscreens tend to absorb into the skin better, and don’t leave a white residue. They can be good for daily sunscreens but do not block the entire UVA and UVB range like zinc.
Physical sunblocks such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on top of the skin and deflect as well as absorb the sun’s rays.
Is one safer than the other? According the the American Academy of Dermatology, any claims that chemical sunscreen ingredients are toxic or hazardous have not been proven.
Many sunscreens will have a combination of physical and chemical agents working together.
Pure mineral sunscreens will likely be a combination of Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, or one or the other.
Want more information? I really, really like this guide to sun protection from Just About Skin.
Why I Go For Zinc
Personally, I now go for zinc based sunscreens that have the highest concentration of zinc I can find. Zinc is the only FDA approved sunscreen ingredient that blocks the entire UVA and UVB spectrum.
Here is a graph that displays this in a more easy to understand way:
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide cover the biggest range. But take a look at the peak absorbance range – zinc oxide has the biggest coverage by far. Plus, zinc is natural and reef safe. So, although the jury may be out on chemical sunscreen safety, the bottom line is that zinc gives you the BEST protection by far. And for surfers who spend hours upon hours in the sun, I really can’t recommend any other ingredient.
The thing is, zinc doesn’t have a very high SPF by itself, so you need a zinc sunscreen with a very high percentage of zinc. 10-20% is recommended, and for surfing I just go for the highest.
Nano or Non Nano?
Nano zinc rubs into your skin better, making it more transparent. However, nano zinc provides less of a “shield” than non nano zinc. Neither will penetrate through healthy skin, so it’s not really a matter of health but more about sun protection. For the intense sun you get while surfing, I recommend non nano zinc.
What I’m Using
Right now I’m very happy with Amavara sunscreen (thank you to the young man at Mitch’s in Solana Beach for recommending this one) which has a whopping 19% zinc for their 30 SPF formula, and 22.5% for their 50 SPF formula. They make it in clear/white and tinted. A little goes a long way, and there is no unpleasant or strong smell or scent.
Another popular brand is Manda, which uses 21.25% zinc. Manda does have a particular chocolate / cocoa smell that I’m not too fond of, but they advertise it as being safe enough to literally eat.
The only downside to zinc that I have noticed is that it can dry your skin out a bit, but this can be combated with a good moisturizer. I also recommend makeup remover wipes for removing all the sunscreen after a session.
SPECIAL NOTE: Avoid any sunblocks that contain retinol. Retinol encourages skin cell turnover, which is great for reversing sun damage but these new skin cells are very sensitive to the sun. Retinol should only be used at night or when you are totally out of the sun.
What about natural sunblocks? There are a number of all natural sunblocks out there that use no chemicals. Make sure you do your research and make sure they are tested and protect against UVA and UVB rays. This is especially important for your kids. Many natural sunblocks do not do what they say they’re doing. Protection from sun damage that can lead to cancer is much more important than a few chemicals that haven’t been proven to be harmful.
Here’s a good (dermatologist authored) article debating whether or not chemical sunblocks are bad for you. I’m all for natural products but I remain skeptical of claims that aren’t proven, especially if they lead people into selecting sunblock products that aren’t as effective. HOWEVER – if zinc is natural and not harmful and the best protection against UVA and UVB rays, why bother with anything else? The issue is that using a sunscreen with only zinc means you need a lot of zinc, and often that can cause a white pasty look. For surfing that’s fine, but for daily use outside the water you may want to consider a sunscreen with avobenzone.
Reef safe? Many sunblocks out there are now advertising themselves as reef safe. They do not contain oxybenzone which has been implicated in reef bleaching.
Apply your sunblock 15-20 minutes before heading into the sun. However, if you’re using a mineral based blocker such as zinc oxide it will start protecting right away. Sometimes I like to double layer sunblock on my face: I use Amavara lotion and rub it in. I then use their SPF “stick” and smear that all over my nose and cheeks like warpaint to give those areas extra protection. I’m not sure if this protects me more from the sun or not, but it can’t hurt.
Reapplication: I confess I have never gone in from surfing to reapply sunblock during my session. However, I probably should. I do know you can bring the sticks out into the water with you and reapply there, which is something I might experiment with in the future as it seems that despite the heavy sunblock I put on my face before sessions I can still tell my skin is getting sun.
Know Your Risks
Also, know your risks! Even darker skinned people can develop skin cancer and increased skin aging. I cringe when my black or latinx friends say they don’t need sunblock…they do! Also, are you taking any antibiotics or using any topicals that increase photosensitivity? A common acne topical, benzoyl peroxide, can increase sun sensitivity. I didn’t know this before I got skin cancer.
Get Your Skin Checked!
I’m also very surprised that my surfing friends don’t get checkups from dermatologists. At the very least you should go once every year, especially if you have high risk factors such as fair skin, moles, or a family history.
If I wasn’t going to a dermatologist on a regular basis I probably would have left the basal cell carcinoma on my nose for a lot longer before getting it checked out. As it was, the ice cream scoop they took out of my nose was pretty big and it had only been visible for a short time. No it likely wouldn’t have killed me, but the longer they get left in the skin the more disfiguring the tumor can become.
At the very least, read up on skin cancers and know how to spot them so they can be dealt with quickly.
Best Surf Sunscreens
Since the first iteration of this sunscreen guide I’ve learned a lot about sunscreens. I really only want to recommend sunscreens that use only a high percentage of zinc oxide. So far my top two are Amavara and Manda. Surf Mud is another pick, but they’re a tough brand to find in shops (however they’ve recently opened an online shop).
Amavara is a newer brand that I hadn’t heard of until recently when shopping for new sunscreens at Mitch’s surf shop in Solana Beach. The young guy working recommended it to me, and I was impressed by the 19% zinc oxide in the 30 SPF formula so I decided to give it a try. The website states that you don’t have a to use a lot, but I still cake it on pretty good. It leaves a bit of a white sheen since I use a lot (I am not taking any chances) but I personally want to be able to see it on my face when I’m surfing.
Amavara also makes a 50 SPF tinted variety that I’m going to purchase and test out next.
Manda was started by Reis Paluso and Cyrus Sutton who I know from Encinitas. They started Manda back in 2015 in a quest to produce an organic, safe, and effective sunscreen. In fact, Manda is safe enough to literally eat.
My only gripe with Manda is that personally I don’t like the way it smells (kind of cocoa chocolate) – but I know a lot of people that absolutely love it. So, you really just have to try it for yourself.
Manda has a 20% zinc oxide content and comes in a paste and lotion.
Surf Mud is a thick, tinted foundation type sunscreen that comes in a small tin. (Note: this is not the EiR NYC brand surf mud) It’s 30% zinc oxide, so it sure packs a punch. Because it’s made in Australia it doesn’t have an SPF. You can buy Surf Mud at surf shops in Australia as well as in the States, but check their website for more information on stockists. As of this writing, Bing in Leucadia (Encinitas) carries Surf Mud.
I really like Surf Mud’s level of protection, although I was a bit concerned at the lack of SPF or ingredient percentage listed on the tin. They say it’s 30% zinc oxide on their website, and their recommended reapplication threshold is 4 hours.