Help Avoiding Sunburn in Hawaii
August 20, 2013 6:44 PM   Subscribe

I have a trip to Hawaii planned. The last time I was there, the sun seemed much stronger than I'm use to in California, and I tend to burn even under the best circumstances. It being vacation, I'll probably be outside more often the normal and maybe even wet more often than normal. What's the best way to avoid getting burned?

I know a big part of this answer is probably sunblock, but even when I've worn sunblock, I still get burned. Probably I'm putting it on incorrectly or not often enough.

I think SPF 30 means you can be in the sun 30 minutes longer (right?). If I apply it every 30 minutes, does that mean I can be in the sun forever and not get burned, or is there a diminishing point of return to SPF? A previous question said you're supposed to apply every 2 hours or after getting wet, but do you have any other tips? What do you do about the residue from the sunscreen on your hands and not wanting to get that stuff on clothes or cameras? Is that even worth worrying about or no big deal?

I can wear a hat too, but any other tips that allow me to be out and comfortable without having to worry much about the sun?
posted by willnot to Health & Fitness (37 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
SPF 50 sunblock. It kept me pale and happy when I visited Death Valley.
posted by jason's_planet at 6:48 PM on August 20, 2013

For the beach, you need an umbrella, or maybe even a tent! I did most of my beach sitting this weekend under that there tent, and I am not burned at all. You could also carry a parsol in certain situations (though they can be hard to deal with if it's windy).
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 6:48 PM on August 20, 2013

My pale kids did great with a zinc solution recced by our derm or sometimes Blue Lizard instead. That & SPF beach and swim clothes.
posted by tilde at 6:52 PM on August 20, 2013

I know a big part of this answer is probably sunblock, but even when I've worn sunblock, I still get burned. Probably I'm putting it on incorrectly or not often enough.

I got the worst sunburn of my entire life when I was in 9th grade and went on a class trip to the Florida Keys. I knew I was sun sensitive, and on my dermatologist's recommendation took Bullfrog SPF 75 sweat proof/waterproof sports block with me, hardly went in the water, and reapplied hourly. I got second degree burns. Blistered horribly. Skin bubbled up and fell off in sheets. I have scars.

Anyway, even though I've done pretty well to avoid the sunlight for the last 12 years, occasionally it still has to happen. I have, however, learned that I'm special. I need a sunscreen with a physical blocker, like zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. It is the only thing that works for me.

Because these tend to be thicker (and don't always disappear on your skin, the ones with zinc oxide leave you with a bit of a chalky sheen), they are less popular, and therefore hard to find. Hint: use baby sunscreen. People care about babies, so they get the good stuff.

Maybe you're not as sensitive as I am, but (literally) once burned, twice shy. Check the labels. With a physical blocker you will be safe. The oxybenzones and whatever in typical sunscreen just flat do not work for me.
posted by phunniemee at 7:02 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

I got 2nd degree blistering sunburn in Hawaii. I wore a muu muu after that. Neutrogena makes an SPF 100. The pictures of me in a hat, a white nose and a muu muu are hilarious. If only I had worn it before I got the burn. Serious sunburn is linked to future skin cancer, so cover up!
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:05 PM on August 20, 2013

As I understand it, SPF measures a multiplication of your skin's natural resistance to burning/sun. So if you could be in the sun for, say, five minutes without burning, SPF 30 should theoretically increase that to 150 minutes. However, the stated SPF is based on the idea that you are applying 1 oz of sunscreen to cover your entire body. That is a *LOT* more sunscreen than most people use at one time.

I am pale and photophobic, so I wear high SPF, high PPD (measures resistance to UVA rays which also damage skin; there is no standard in the US yet for that) sunscreens, mostly physical ones. The kind that leave a white cast and contain zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Neutrogena makes some decent, easy-to-find ones (the baby one, as mentioned above), including some unscented ones.

I also generally wear a hat and simply avoid the sun as much as possible.
posted by lysimache at 7:08 PM on August 20, 2013 [3 favorites]

Prime burn hours are between 10am and 2pm, so keep your skin extra protected during those hours, I'd go for some sun protective clothing.
posted by effluvia at 7:09 PM on August 20, 2013

You can get SPF 50 clothing that is designed for wearing in hot weather. There's full coverage swimsuits, long sleeve shirts, broad-brimmed hats, and if you really want to cover up there's gloves and face shields.
posted by yohko at 7:10 PM on August 20, 2013 [4 favorites]

SPF 15 (say) means that if it would take you 30 minutes exposure to get sunburned in a given situation without sunscreen, it should take you 15 times as long to get sunburned in the same situation with the sunscreen. So, in theory, for a given intensity of UV light, you multiply your maximum safe exposure time by the SPF factor.

Of course, in practice it's more complicated than that. The sunscreen can wear off, the exact quantity of UVA and UVB you're exposed to is difficult to calculate etc. It's a good idea to get a high SPF sunscreen (say, 30), make sure it's broad spectrum (good for both UVA and UVB), and get it in a big pump-top bottle so you don't feel any reluctance about slathering it on in large quantities and renewing it reasonably frequently (every hour or so of actual full-strength exposure). But the best thing you can do is to cover up. There are lots of clothes sold specifically for sun-protection, but you can also just wear a light, thin cotton or linen shirt and light cotton or linen pants when you're not actually swimming or what have you. And always, always, always wear a hat with a good wide brim.

If the sun is fierce (I don't know what it's like in Hawaii) you can still burn through a thin cotton shirt (I'm talking very sheer fabrics here), but if you put sunscreen on early in the day before you put the shirt on (letting the sunscreen dry so the shirt doesn't cling uncomfortably) the combination of the shirt and the sunscreen will resist pretty much anything.

As for cameras and such--they'll be fine. Good sunscreens dry non-greasy, so you just wait a bit and your hands will be fine. You could always pack a bottle of a hand sanitizer, too, if you want to speed things up.
posted by yoink at 7:10 PM on August 20, 2013

In addition to a lotion, make sure you have a spray as well. It's really easy to apply even when you're in the middle of stuff, and if you're traveling alone it's a lot less awkward to ask someone to spray your back than apply lotion. There's a new one that can even go on wet skin.
posted by charmcityblues at 7:11 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

What everyone else said, but for emphasis:

- apply a LOT of waterproof, high-SPF, broad-spectrum sunscreen. According to dermatologists, people don't apply nearly enough. They recommend something like half a teaspoon for the face, a teaspoon for each arm, and so on. Like, probably double what you think you need. Pat it on, don't rub it right in (that breaks down the chemical structure of the active ingredients and renders it less effective).

- wide-brimmed hat, sunglasses, sunscreen spray to reach the back of your shoulders/ back of ears and neck, and other hard-to-reach places.

- rash shirt with a high SPF.

- shade. Those pop-up shade sails with a high SPF rating are the bomb. I take mine to the beach every day in summer.

- light cotton sarong for draping over legs or shoulders

- remember to keep reapplying that sunscreen on a regular basis!

- If the sun is really fierce, you just have to take a break and go inside between about 10 and 2. There's just no way around it.

I live in Western Australia and am a fair-skinned beach-lover. It sounds like a pain in the butt, but once you have your kit organized, it's not biggie. I find it totally worth the effort to avoid all the premature aging and, even worse, skin cancer, that is the alternative.
posted by Salamander at 7:22 PM on August 20, 2013 [5 favorites]

I always wear a long-sleeved rash guard in Hawaii. Swimming is more pleasant in midday wearing it. We also go out before 8:30 am and after 6 for quick, sunscreen-free dips. On the beach I stay under the shade of trees (real trees; I don't try to duck behind palms) or under a (serious, hotel) umbrella. I also wear a dorky hat.

I have never gotten burned in Hawaii.
posted by purpleclover at 7:24 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

Take a shower before going out and apply sunblock immediately after drying yourself. I've found that a layer of sunblock absorbs pretty well and then if I take a while before going out to the sun I put on sunblock again, but the first after-shower layer works wonders.
posted by CrazyLemonade at 7:24 PM on August 20, 2013

I was on the Big Island in June for a visit. I burned my back and shoulders like a *%$^! my first day in the water, and wore a rash guard* after that - and yes, I had lots of SPF50 sunscreen on. When not in the water, I wore a hat and a long-sleeved lightweight shirt made out of some high-tech anti-UV material that I bought at REI; they're having end-of-season sales now, so hit up their online outlet store.

* Not actually a rash guard, but a t-shirt made out of some high-tech material - it breathes, it dries really fast, it kept me from burning. Like this one. $20ish bucks, same as in town!

If you'll be wearing sandals, remember to sunscreen the tops of your feet. A lot.
posted by rtha at 7:34 PM on August 20, 2013

You may not be applying enough. You need a minimum of 2mg/cm2 thickness of product on your skin (which is what sunscreens are tested at); that works out to be at least 1/4 tsp for your face depending on your face measurements, 1/4 tsp for your neck. If you're wearing a swimsuit, count on using at least a full ounce for your body, again depending on your surface area. That's 1.25 ml of sunscreen for your face and a full shot glass for your body, for size comparison. The average sunscreen bottle is about 3 oz in the US; if you're not running through a bottle in about every three trips to the beach you're not using enough.

Chemical sunscreens (avobenzone, oxybenzone and everything that isn't titanium dioxide or zinc oxide) degrade quickly upon exposure to UV light, because they protect by converting UVA/UVB radiation to heat. They also need to be absorbed into your skin to actually work, hence the 'apply 15 minutes before sun exposure' instruction these sunscreens usually state. YMMV on how well these work for you. These tend to have more elegant formulations in terms of comfort and appearance - that is, less greasy and sticky.

Physical sunscreens (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are micronised mineral particles that reflect UVA/UVB radiation to protect skin. These are the old-school super-white chalky sunscreens, so they're physically unappealing but don't need to be absorbed into your skin to protect you - it just sits on top. Zinc oxide is the most broad spectrum sunscreen filter out there, it covers the majority of the UVA/UVB spectrum. Also, YMMV on how well these work for you - some formulations are incredibly sticky and hard to manage when you apply the proper amount, and if this stuff wipes off you lose the protection.

As for SPF, don't get fooled by SPF 100 or SPF 75 sunscreens - SPF 15 blocks out 93% of UVA light and SPF 30 blocks out 97%. Anything higher than that and you're not getting much extra protection.

If you're looking for more concrete protection and/or worried about sunscreen residue on stuff, you could look into long-sleeved UPF clothing and hat that's been treated with sprays to block UV radiation, carry an umbrella and stick to the shade.
posted by zennish at 7:34 PM on August 20, 2013 [5 favorites]


I am the palest, non-vampiric, non-anemic person you will ever meet! Put me up against the palest person you have ever met, and I'll beat 'em.

Sunscreen: SPF 30 or higher (though higher is arguably wasting your money). If out and about, reapply every 2 hours. If in the water, reapply every hour. I say every hour despite everything being water resistant to 80 - 90 minutes because I'd rather not risk a burn. It's a pain in the ass, but, hey, I got my first sunburn on one strip of my back yesterday, and it's the first sunburn this bad I've had in going on 15-16 years. But this is the key bit here ---


For realz. If you don't do this, you're just washing it off. May as well as not have applied it. I used to burn the way you do, and it wasn't until I realized that I was applying sunscreen while I was still wet or going back into the water right after applying it that I stopped burning fiercely.

Hats. Wear 'em.

If you don't need to be in the sun, don't be in the sun. Beach umbrellas, beach tents, shady spots underneath trees --- find not-sun places to be when you don't need to be in the sun. Stay inside during the harshest times --- for me where I am, this is typically between 11 and 1 or 2.

For a physical barrier, linen is a good friend. Long sleeved linen shirts and pants could be helpful here, too.

And as a general rule, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Make sure you are drinking enough water --- won't help with the sunburn, but forgetting to drink water while under a hot sun would be bad for lots of other reasons. So I make it a point to drink water every time I reapply sunscreen.

And just in case, keep a bunch of aloe lotion nearby. I have found if I think I may have gotten a sunburn that putting some aloe on overnight is a good thing to do.
posted by zizzle at 7:38 PM on August 20, 2013

My derm says to apply sunscreen, wait a few minutes and then apply it all over again- that way I make sure to put enough on. Don't forget your ears.
posted by PorcineWithMe at 7:41 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

The newfangled spray bottle stuff is amazing. It takes perhaps 30 seconds to do my face, neck, shoulders, and arms, where normal sunblock would take ~5 minutes to get fully rubbed in.

Because it's so easy to put on, I just reapply once an hour while I'm in the sun.
posted by zug at 8:08 PM on August 20, 2013

I'm a Californian who burns really easily too, and I got through my week in Hawaii with nothing more than a tiny mild burn on my shoulder where my top rode up a little. To achieve this, I applied sunscreen every hour and a half to two hours. I used the Neutrogena SPF 70 if I recall correctly. Honestly, I think applying more often was what really worked. Usually I end up only applying once if I spend a day outside, because I get lazy, but I was really concerned about burning horribly thanks to spending way more time than usual outdoors in Hawaii. Pretty sure that's the main thing that worked. One thing that helped me keep up the habit of applying more frequently was to reapply sunblock every time I finished my water bottle. As a bonus, I stayed properly hydrated too!

I didn't bother worrying too much about the residue, beyond wiping my hands clean with a towel.
posted by yasaman at 8:15 PM on August 20, 2013

What Salamander said. Australia takes sun protection very seriously because sunburn can occur in as little as 11 minutes on a fine summer's day here. Sunsmart.

Sprayable sunscreens are easy but flammable (even when dry). There's even a Sunscreen Calculator Tool. (Australian SPF scale is different from US SPF scale - you want to go higher than 30.)

As others have said, you would benefit from a rashguard (swim shirt), for sure. Surf/dive shops and some outdoors stores carry rashies, and athletics shops also carry quick-drying shirts (labelled sun-protective) that serve the same function. You might also consider getting a pair of loose quickdry trousers to wear in the water to protect the skin on your legs.
posted by gingerest at 8:51 PM on August 20, 2013 [1 favorite]

My blindingly pale family and I went to Hawaii this last November. Ten years ago, I got the worst sunburn of my life on the beach in Hawaii, bad enough to cause weeping and really ruin a lot of the vacation for me. This year, we just. . . stayed inside between 10 and 2. We went to the beach at 7 AM, stayed there until 9:30, came home, had a snack, tootled around in the car, had lunch, had quiet reading time, and then headed out again at 2:30 or 3. Not only did I not burn this time, I didn't even wear sunblock, and neither did my children. No sunburns.
posted by KathrynT at 9:01 PM on August 20, 2013

Nthing rashguards. I live in Los Angeles and am pale and do not tan; I have a long-sleeve rashguard/swimshirt from Athleta that I wear when I'm near the beach in Hawaii, and a dorky hat from REI. I put extra sunscreen on my face, but none under my rashguard, and I have never gotten burned wearing it. If I'm on the beach for any length of time, i cover my legs with a towel.
posted by mogget at 9:12 PM on August 20, 2013

I am a natural redhead with blue eyes and casper-white skin. So white that people think I'm wearing white tights when I go bare-legged. I am very sensitive to the sun.

Yet, I visit hot, sunny, desert climates at least once every year, with a lot of that time spent floating in a pool or walking around in skimpy clothes and I never get burned. I take one big bottle (3 -5 oz?) of sunscreen PER DAY that I plan to be outside and I use it all up. One bottle per day, everyday. For most of my trips that means upwards of $100 of decent-quality sunblock just for myself.

Apply sunblock heavily, and if you sweat or get in the water for even a few minutes, towel yourself off and reapply and sit in the shade for another 15 minutes.
posted by joan_holloway at 9:23 PM on August 20, 2013

As for SPF, don't get fooled by SPF 100 or SPF 75 sunscreens - SPF 15 blocks out 93% of UVA light and SPF 30 blocks out 97%. Anything higher than that and you're not getting much extra protection.

I'm a bleeding idiot, sorry - UVB light, not UVA. UVA protection is calculated differently; as others have said, there currently isn't a measurement scale for UVA protection in the US. But if you're interested, there's a PPD calculator you can use to estimate the amount of UVA protection your chosen sunscreen offers - you have to sign up, but once you do you can plug in the filters, the percentage of the filters used and get a half-way decent guess so at least you know if your sunscreen is junk or not.
posted by zennish at 9:47 PM on August 20, 2013

I love Hawaiian early mornings and late afternoons/early evenings. The beach is at its best during those times, and if you're doing outdoorsy active things like hiking, it'll be less stinking hot, too.

Particularly early a.m...that's the best time for swimming and snorkeling (best time to see lots of fish). Hawaii has a strong "early to rise" culture, so if you can shift your sleep schedule to be up at dawn, you'll enjoy a particular slice of local culture that late-sleepers miss out on.

You can save the midday hours to do indoorsy or outdoor-shaded activities. Local style is to set up camp under a big-ass shade tree at a grassy beachside park, and just chill out during the hottest/brightest hours of the day. Maybe take a quick jump in the ocean now and then to cool off, but no lingering.

I'm bone-white, spend a ton of time in Hawaii, and can't remember the last time I got a sunburn there. Mainly because I just avoid the most brutal hours of the day outside, and otherwise glop on the sunscreen like Cinnabon frosting.
posted by nacho fries at 10:21 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

i would check out breathable sun protective clothes and swimwear with UPF ratings. covering up is better than wearing sunscreen, but you don't need to be super sweaty under your clothes! here are a couple sites to check out:


Columbia's Omni-Shade

Mott 50

posted by cristinacristinacristina at 10:21 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm not sure anyone specifically said it, but no, reapplying sunscreen does not 'retstart' the clock. So if you are wearing factor 50 and that gives you (as an example pulled out of the air, 50 x 10 mins) 500 minutes in the sun without burning, then that's 8 and a bit hours with perfect application and reapplication all the time you're in the sun.
posted by kadia_a at 11:03 PM on August 20, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'm white as a ghost and burn very easily. My sister is a dermatologist and recommends Neutrogena sunblock, SPF 45 or higher. I lathered that stuff on on my last trip to the beach, and, being in direct sunlight on the sand for hours on end, didn't get a lick of color! Worked like a charm. Here's the stuff I used.
posted by Falwless at 5:55 AM on August 21, 2013

Regarding spray sunscreen:

NO. JUST SAY NO. I got the burn of my life using that stuff. My husband's feet were cooked. it was a bad, bad scene. Read this article. The FDA is actually considering banning those products.

Get SPF 50. Water RESISTANT - they can't say waterproof anymore. I've had good luck with Neutrogena, Coppertone, and Banana Boat, but baby sunscreen is good too.

Reapply constantly, have a hat (I have way too many hats at this point) and always have something to put over your arms and legs. Linen is nice.
posted by Medieval Maven at 7:30 AM on August 21, 2013 [3 favorites]

The Environmental Working Group has recommendations for sunscreen.
posted by oceano at 7:42 AM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Test the sunscreen before you go. I can't use neutrogena on my face, it makes my eyes water, but my coworker says it's the best stuff ever.
posted by MichelleinMD at 8:52 AM on August 21, 2013

Another pasty creature here. I agree with phunniemee on the use of sunblock that physically blocks rays. After being severely burned twice and lightly burned countless times I've found it's the only thing that really works.

This is how I've gone years without getting sunburned:

I use a physical sunblock. You will look ridiculous because it is thick and white but it absolutely works. I put this all over my face.
I stay out of the sun completely from 11am to 1pm, sometimes even from 10am to 2pm if I can.
I use umbrellas on the beach no matter the time.
I use clothing to block the sun's rays, namely hats and shirts that cover my shoulders. Sometimes I will even swim with a light t-shirt on.

I've just accepted that looking sexy and being carefree at the beach is just not something I can do. I'd rather look good 98% of the time because I have good skin than worry about the 3 hours I'm at the beach.
posted by unannihilated at 11:13 AM on August 21, 2013 [2 favorites]

Another great thing about those light-weight sun-blocking rashguards is that they pack down pretty light. My brothers in Hawaii, who are watermen, really like the looser-cut NRS line of rashguards/shirts (the Crossover and Guide ones). They look sharp, they don't make you look like you're wearing a sausage casing, and are comfortable enough to wear around outside the water. REI often has them on sale.

I'm another one who can't wear the Neutrogena line. I'm a big fan of the Watermans Applied Science line. Expensive, but the damn stuff works. The face stick is portable and non-gooey. You can keep it in your pocket or man-bag. Don't be put off by the flesh doesn't look like you're wearing makeup or anything, even if you're lily-white.

P.S. Swimming in the hotel pool at night is the best thing, ever.
posted by nacho fries at 1:01 PM on August 21, 2013

I really like the Patagonia sun hoody. I've used it in Hawaii and elsewhere and been very happy with its protection. I like the hood because i like being able to cover my ears, neck, etc. You can add a baseball cap for extra and (extra-stylish!) protection. I was a little worried about its durability before I got it but the one I have has held up for several years of being jammed in backpacks and beach bags. I also like having something dry to put on although things do dry off quickly.

I also recommend a swim shirt or rash guard especially when snorkeling or swimming for exercise and agree about taking a break in the prime sun hours. You're going to leave the beach at some point anyway.
posted by Athanasius at 3:46 PM on August 21, 2013

I live in Hawaii and have two kids. We spend quite a bit of time outdoors. We always (well ...) wear Capilene shirts or rashguards and usually hats as well. I think my wife picks them up from Patagonia. I wouldn't try to rely on sunscreen alone.
posted by lex mercatoria at 4:37 PM on August 21, 2013

To echo a few other commenters: Reapply. Reapply. Reapply. Plus what lex mercatoria says about taking a multi-pronged approach to sun protection (sunscreens + hats + shirts/rashguards).

You'll be at the beach a lot, and the reflection from the water intensifies the sun's rays. I learned this the hard way when I went out on a friend's sailboat a few weeks ago. I was wearing a hat and long shorts, so my face and legs were OK. But the sunscreen I'd put on six hours previously (d'oh!) was not enough to protect the parts of my body that weren't covered by clothes (my arms and around my collarbone).

I use BurnOut Eco-Sensitive Clean and Clear SPF 30 (active ingredient: 18.6% zinc oxide -- non-nano). Next time I'm slated to get more than incidental sun exposure, I will probably use BurnOut Ocean Tested Physical Sunscreen SPF 30, which has more zinc oxide (20% -- also non-nano) and is more water-resistant than Clean and Clear.

If there's a Whole Paycheck near you, you can buy BurnOut products there -- Clean and Clear is in a blue-and-white tube, and Ocean Tested is in a yellow and orange tube. (BurnOut is based in Santa Cruz, so it shouldn't be too hard for you to get your hands on it.)

And believe me, I'm shopping around for a rash guard for my next beach/waterfront outing!
posted by virago at 7:37 PM on August 21, 2013

P.S. By "more than incidental sun exposure," I mean "outside most of the day around or in the water having fun." So if I were going to Hawaii, I'd use the BurnOut Ocean Tested Physical Sunscreen.

For a cheaper alternative that still has physical blockers like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, go to the drugstore and look for Blue Lizard Australian Sensitive Sunscreen, SPF 30+, or Blue Lizard Australian Baby Sunscreen, SPF 30+. (phunniemee is right -- "babies get the good stuff"!)
posted by virago at 9:00 PM on August 21, 2013

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