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How to Choose the Best Sunscreen for Surfing

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According to the National Cancer Institute, there were more than one million new cases of skin cancer in the United States in 2010. Of those new cases, less than one thousand of them resulted in death.

Mathematically, those odds of surviving skin cancer are pretty good. But just like the odds of being attacked by a shark are pretty slim, we, as surfers, are still sitting ducks because the draw of the surf puts us square at ground zero for predatory fish aggression and sun damage due to long-term exposure to the sun. So what are we to do?

Slathering on sunscreen before a surf session is about as important as putting on your board shorts or applying a bit of wax to your surfboard deck. Sunscreens block the sun's ultraviolet (UV) rays from your skin. They do this in two ways:

Some sunscreens scatter light and reflect from your skin while other sunscreens absorb the UV rays. However, research shows that simply blocking out the sun’s rays doesn’t necessarily lower your chances of developing skin cancer.

Logic tells us to keep an eye on the Sun Protection Factor (SPF). Sunscreens advertise their SPF on the container. The number is a rating of the level of protection the sunscreen offers against Ultraviolet B rays (UVB) only, which is great because UVB is a major cause of skin cancer, but it’s not the only one.

Scientists have also proven that ultraviolet A rays (UVA) can also contribute to your chance of developing the disease. For this article, let’s ignore wrinkles. Sure, wrinkles are a bummer, but when it comes to getting waves and having fun surfing the rest of your life, being ugly factors in very little. If you’re like me, you just want to keep surfing.

So, here’s the trick, UVB rays will visibly burn your skin and cause cancer while UVA rays are the silent killer because they don’t cause sunburn but instead go deep into your derma, adding to your overall lifetime of sun exposure.

Look for Broad Spectrum Sunscreens

You want to be sure that you are using a Broad Spectrum sunscreen to keep you safe from both UVA and UVB rays.

SPF and UVB

Okay, so now you’ve got broad spectrum sunscreen, so be sure that it’s offering proper strength. In terms of time in the sun and UVB protection, SPF works in multiples of 10. To illustrate, a sunscreen with an SPF rating of 15 would provide protection for about 150 minutes. So as a surfer who might be in the water for anywhere between an hour and 4 hours, you want a higher SPF like at least a 30 or 50.

What about UVA?

Forget about the SPF here because UVA protection is all about the ingredients of the sunscreen. According to the Cancer Research Institute, look for at least one of the following ingredients in your sunscreen:

titanium dioxide, zinc oxide , ecamsule, avobenzone, oxybenzone, or sulisobenzone.

Special Consideration for Surfers

Be sure that you choose a sunscreen that is made to be water resistant if you are going surfing or planning to swim or do any exercising in the water. According to the FDA, “water resistant” means that your SPF strength remains effective for at least 40 minutes in the water. For a standard surf session, you need to be sure you choose a sunscreen that is termed “very water resistant,” which will provide protection for some 80 minutes in the water.

What I Prefer

After 25+ healthy years in the water , I have found that Banana Boat’s 50+ SPF Very Water Resistant sunscreen has served me well. I have used both the “Sport” and “Baby” formulas and found them very comparable. A 10 ounce tube goes for about $10 and last for a month or so depending on the surf.

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