Sunscreen for Hiking and Backpacking: Efficacy, Ingredient Safety, and Best Practices

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Home Forums Campfire Editor’s Roundtable Sunscreen for Hiking and Backpacking: Efficacy, Ingredient Safety, and Best Practices

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    Daniel Hu
    BPL Member


    Companion forum thread to: Sunscreen for Hiking and Backpacking: Efficacy, Ingredient Safety, and Best Practices

    Dan Hu reviews current research regarding the safety and efficacy of sunscreen for hiking and backpacking, including ingredient efficacy, safety, and best practices for outdoor adventuring.

    Mark Verber
    BPL Member


    Locale: San Francisco Bay Area

    Nice summary. On “best practices” I second the “clothing” option when backpacking. Not only do you save weight on longer trips, but it is much easier to stay clean. When it’s dusty I find dirty sticking to wherever I applied sunscreen and it’s a pain to get clean at the end of the day.

    Jane Burns
    BPL Member


    There is an organization that analyzes the chemicals in everything from Sunscreen, to laundry products etc and rates them as to their efficacy and chemical safety and impact on the environment which is more and more being seen in oceans and rivers.  It is Environmental Working Group.  And their most “A”rated products are EWG verified.  You many want to check it out.  I found I like the Attitude products—especially their sunscreen.

    DWR D
    BPL Member


    And if you swim in the lakes or streams, the sun screen ends up in the water… can’t be good for the critters…

    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    Yeah, EWG does good report on sunscreens

    I’ve tried zinc and titanium, but I didn’t like it because it comes off and gets on my clothes creating a bit of a mess.

    I use long pants, shirt, wide brimmed hat.  Sometimes I’ll put sunscreen on my neck and back of hands that aren’t covered.


    Jerry Adams
    BPL Member


    Locale: Oregon and Washington

    and if you don’t like EWG, there’s Consumer Reports

    BPL Member


    Locale: Front Range

    Daniel, thanks for pulling this information together. And Jane & Jerry, thanks for the lead to EWG. Having just had my dermatologist take off yet another suspicious piece of sun damage, it’s relevant.

    +1 to clothing, although I still use some sunscreen on my face. Sticks are less hassle for me.

    BPL Member


    Locale: Northern California

    “+1 to clothing, although I still use some sunscreen on my face. ”

    Yep to all that. I cover up good at altitude, where the effects of sun on the skin is exacerbated because of a thinner atmosphere. counter intuitively, thin SPF material can be cooler than leaving your skin bare to the sun/elements. And it protects against bugs and brush as well. I wear a broad brimmed hat for sure. And I use a little sunscreen as well. Sun reflects wildly off snow, as we know. Ditto, water and rock.

    BPL Member


    Nice article. Only 2 of the 10 guys I regularly go out with use sunscreen, not counting myself.

    In my 20’s I was out a lot and used sunscreen semi regularly. Now in my 30’s I prefer long pants, long shirt, sun gloves, with a wide brim (4″) full brim hat, and on 90% of my hikes use the solar umbrella for comfort (greatly reduces sweating in direct sun and high temps). This only leaves my face and neck partially exposed and I apply sun screen to these areas usually once in the morning, or during peak sun morning and lunch.

    I went to long clothing+limited sunscreen over short clothing + extensive sunscreen for a few reasons –

    -Sunscreen does not prevent skin aging. Even if you religiously apply you will eventually get leatherly skin.

    -Skin cancer in my family. Clothes work much better and more reliably than screen

    -A light colored sun shirt is cooler than no shirt most of the time, and can be wetted for even better cooling

    -Every plant around me is itchy, spiky, or generally unpleasant to brush by. Long clothing prevents a lot of scrapes and itching

    -Mites love me. Even with long, permethrin treated clothing I get a few bites. Without it im just a walking mite buffet which is extremely itchy and requires permethrin lotion to fix, which I’d like to avoid.

    Eric Blumensaadt
    BPL Member


    Locale: Mojave Desert

    I dunno how safe it is but I’ve used Neutrogena sunscreen in various SPFs since it first came out and like it. But then I only use it 3 times a week, not every day.

    Ian H
    BPL Member


    Eric, I’ll second your suggestion of the Neutrogena. I think I found a bottle of my daughter’s old sunscreen, because it’s a brand a bit fancy for my taste, but it has a very nice nonstick/matte finish once it has been applied. Maybe a little prissy for backpacking, but excellent if you are going to have your photo taken e.g. at an outdoor wedding!

    For Australian sun, sunscreen is essential on exposed parts, and sometimes it is just too unpleasant to wear long pants and long shirt. Areas like face and neck, and also back of hands need sunscreen applying. If you walk anywhere along the beach, don’t forget the backs of the feet. You don’t have to have had many episodes of sunburn to the top of your foot, to realise how difficult it is then to get a shoe on. I’ve also seen some spectacular burns around the Achilles tendon when people forgot that their sunscreen only went down as far as their socks, removing their boots for the beach walk.

    Winter or summer I carry a lipstick sunscreen in my pants zip pocket, and reapply frequently. Blistex brand tastes best, some are awful. It also gets on your bite valve or bottle mouth, so pick a nice flavour.

    Vitamin D is a genuine concern. My father died of skin cancer aged 59, and my little brother got a melanoma in his 40s. I have been very careful about the sun for over 40 years, and managed to get vitamin D deficiency. But 1 tiny capsule a week is nothing compared to a blast of liquid nitrogen. For those who haven’t had the pleasure, my dermatologist said that it would feel like being hit over the head with a hammer. The initial freeze wasn’t too bad, but as it started to thaw, I knew what he meant. We’ve repeated that fun scenario twice a year, for 30 years…

    Remember that water and snow reflect UV, so take extra care with that lunch stop/swim break with ‘air-drying’ in the sun. Many sunscreens are marketed as ‘sport’ or paradoxically, ‘toddler’ and have a 4hr reapplication time. They have a higher concentration of active ingredients, with more zinc/titanium oxide in the toddler versions.

    Ian H
    BPL Member


    Marcus, sunscreen does decrease skin ageing, you’ll look younger than your walking mates who don’t wear it. But backpacking is still more sun exposure than accountancy, so you and I look more like farmers than vampires!

    John S.
    BPL Member


    Vitamin D- The reference range was set for decades and deficiency was not common. Somewhere around year 2000 some “researchers” start putting out medical reports of benefits of higher vitamin D levels (a lie). The reference range gets moved higher so more people are now told they are deficient. It took years (10-15+) before reports found no real value of higher levels. I saw it as a scam that drove up healthcare costs…end of rant.

    Jay Bruins
    BPL Member


    Does anyone have “mineral sunscreen” they actually like? (Anyone else feel like this is just rebranded sunblock?)

    I picked some up on accident at REI. Worst decision ever. At the interface with my clothes, it rubbed off and I was burned. Wading through streams 3 hours after application (way longer than recommended), the “grease” (beeswax, oil, whatever keeps the zinc oxide in suspension) created a sheen on the water. This same grease allowed dirt to cling like no other.

    After 5 days, I used my hiking shirt to scrape it off before I got in the car. I put that shirt through the laundry at least times before I gave up, permanently ruined.

    I’m glad this article made it clear that stopping the burn (UVB) and stopping cancer (UVA) are two different goals and I’m probably slacking on the latter, but I don’t currently see options other than going back to long clothes, which have their own drawbacks.,

    M. C
    BPL Member


    I could not read the article but I was thinking of trying ‘Reef safe’ type sunscreens – with the hope they would be safe for river and lake life also.

    Ian H
    BPL Member


    Just returned from 3 days walking in Mont Bell Wikron ‘Parka’. It’s t-shirt material (thin polyester) with hood, long sleeves/thumbloops and full zip. Very comfortable at 11-20 degrees Centigrade, steamy weather with intermittent full sun.

    Easier than sunscreen and probably being able to intermittently open the zip (when shaded) made up for the arms being a bit warmer. And the hood pulled on at night for mosquitos/warmth.

    Paul S
    BPL Member


    SOL sun screen is my favorite.

    I was selling a used HP laser printer years ago, and the guy who bought it from me was founding this new company (“Sol”) and he gave me a sample. I have been using it ever since.

    Indrit S
    BPL Member


    I was hoping for some advice how to avoid having your eyes burn while at the same time apply sunscreen (not cloth / hat which is hot) above eye level…

    BPL Member


    I have been using Z Blok sunscreen for years.  Very little eye irritation on application or from perspiration. Zinc, but it rubs in and leaves very little white skin.


    Paul S
    BPL Member


    Indrit, the SOL sunscreen does not bother eyes at all. When the companies founder showed me the sunscreen, he purposely put it right into his eye to demonstrate. No sting.


    Bill K
    BPL Member


    For me, it is important to buy a sunscreen I want to use (smell, ease of application, etc).  Like others, have had slices of my face/head removed of pre-cancerous stuff. Not happy with the application or look of the mineral-based formulas. I am fine using non-mineral sunscreens even with the uncertainty of risk of some of the ingredients.  Never heard of anybody dying from too much sunscreen but have lost some friends to skin cancer at early ages. I also started to wear more sun-appropriate clothing to minimize the amount of sunscreen I need to use. Just ordered my summer allotment from Walmart based on the latest consumer reports … Equate Ultra lotion (every day face usage) and Australian Gold Spray (when I just wear swimtrunks river/lake kayaking )

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