10 Tips to Prevent Sunburn when Traveling

by | Jan 20, 2020 | 0 comments

Woman walking in sunshine in field of flowers

Do enjoy vacationing in sunny destinations? How about exploring outside when the weather is nice? Us too! One thing we quickly learned on our adventures though is that sun exposure varies greatly around the world. I’ve experienced really bad burns (I’m talking hurts to touch, feeling nauseous, skin peeling for days kind of bad), even though I thought I had taken proper precautions when they occurred. Since then we’ve become much more skilled in preventing sunburn, and want to share our top 10 tips to help you do the same.

Woman's back with extremely bad sunburn
The worst sunburn I’ve ever had, back before I learned the tips in this article.

1) Pack Sunscreen Everywhere You Go

This may seem like an obvious statement, but sunscreen is one of the best defenses to prevent sunburn. It’s also easy to forget at home when heading out for a day on the town. Since you can get burnt in any weather when the UV index is high enough (yes, even cooler destinations), we recommend buying a small tube of block that’s easy to pack. This way you’ll be prepared, no matter where your adventures take you.

Woman with sunscreen on face to prevent sunburn.

2) Reapply Often

If your travelling to a destination hotter than your own, it can be easy to misjudge how much sun you’re getting. This is especially true on cloudy days or when playing in the water. To avoid getting burnt, reapply often (they say you should reapply every 2 hours). Trust me, as someone who’s very fair skinned and gets burnt super easily, it’s better to apply often, even when you don’t think you need it.

ProTip: We like to use Accuweather for checking the weather. Not only has it proven to stay up to date on weather trends (even telling how soon to expect rain), but it also provides the UV index rating for your location. When it says high (or extremely high), you’ll know to take extra precautions that day.

There’s a free version of Accuweather on both the Google and Apple stores. I recommend the paid version though as it removes ads and allows you to see an hourly forecast for multiple days, instead of just the next 24 hours that the free version provides. This helps when planning outings for the week to come. Or you can use their desktop internet-browser version.

Sunscreen Aisle. Buy some to prevent sunburn.

3) Buy the Highest SPF You Can Find

Most doctors say that SPF 50 blocks about 98% of UVB radiation, which will work for most folks. For those fairer skinned, however, the higher the SPF the better. I’ve been to a dermatologist and they’ve expressly told me that even a small, incremental increase in coverage from a higher SPF is a good idea. Make an informed decision on what SPF level is best for your skin type and purchase accordingly. When in doubt though, it’s better to go stronger than weaker.

Sunscreen PA++++ to prevent sunburn

ProTip: In some parts of the world (such as SE Asia) you’ll have trouble finding block that’s rated over 50 SPF. Instead search for sunblock with a PA+ rating (the more plus signs the better). The most I’ve ever found is four.

Purchase One Today: We like to pack this 100 SPF from Neutrogena for facial use or extremely harsh conditions. It’s not oily, which helps with the complexion. We then use regular waterproof sunblock in the highest SPF we can find for the rest of our body. Sun Bum is a good, reef friendly brand to consider.

Couple wearing long sun protecting clothing in Vietnam

4) Wear Long Clothing

This may seem counter intuitive, since you don’t typically want to layer on more clothes when it gets hot outside. We’ve learned though that you’re going to sweat no matter what, so it’s better to wear long clothing which protects you from the sun without needing sunblock.

Long garments can also help keep you cooler than when your skin is exposed. This is because it allows your skin to breath. They must be flowy garments though. Skin tight clothes will block your pores and are more likely to make you overheat.

5) Wear a Sun Hat

I wasn’t really a hat person before we started traveling, but knew it’d be a necessity while on the road. Besides fair skin, I also have fine hair, meaning my scalp is always in danger when the weather is nice. The sun hat helps with this, and in our year abroad I haven’t received any major scalp burns. Score!

ProTip: When searching for a sun hat, make sure it ticks these four boxes:

  • The hat comes with a large brim. This will keep the sun off your face and neck.
  • Choose a hat made of straw, cotton or other lightweight material. Darker colors and heavier material will keep the heat in.
  • The hat should pack well. Unless you plan to wear it on every travel day or consistently when out and about, you’ll want the ability to stash it in a backpack or put in your suitcase. Having something made of crushable material is a must.
  • Get a hat with a chin strap. I know, I know, nothing screams nerd like having your hat cinched up under your chin, but you’ll be thanking me when it’s a windy day. Instead of worrying about losing your hat, or feeling like you have to take it off and get burned, you’ll be able to enjoy your time under the sun with confidence and ease. Plus, you don’t always have to use the strap. I regularly have the strap hanging lose, or trucked up until it’s needed.

Purchase One Today: The sunhats Tom and I use are both from Columbia. You can purchase mine here. Unfortunately Tom’s hat has been discontinued, but this one is a close match.

Woman next to elephant statue with umbrella to prevent sunburn.

6) Pack a Collapsible Umbrella

As someone who grew up in Seattle, the idea of carrying an umbrella seemed blasphemous. It basically labels you as a tourist in our hometown since Seattleites prefer hats and rain jackets to protect against the weather. My outlook completely changed though once we traveled closer to the equator. The sun is so intense that I finally understood why people carry sun umbrellas: they provide full body, portable shade.

Having a sun hat is good, but can also give you a sweaty head as the rest of your body continues baking in the sun. When I want to look nice, and don’t need my hands free, then I opt for the umbrella to gain better coverage. Tom’s even taken to carrying a sun umbrella in really high UV climates. It’s amazing how you can feel a marked difference in temperature once the umbrella is deployed.

Purchase One Today: While not necessary, having a UPF rated umbrella is the best for sun protection. We also look for ones that pack down small, so they don’t take up a ton of room in our daypack.

7) Shadow Hop

Whenever you’re out and about, stick to the shadows. It seems like a simple statement, but I’ve seen plenty of people just stand in the sun, baking. If one side of the street is more shaded, move there. Or if there’s a patch of shade further back from the crosswalk/intersection, wait there until the light changes. You’ll notice many locals in hot countries tend to use this method as well, so take the hint and do as they do.

Man in Rashguard Preventing Sunburn Ha Long Bay

8) Use a Rash Guard for Water Sports

This piece of swimwear isn’t just for surfers and divers. If you like to spend any amount of time in the water, then having a rash guard is a good idea. The UV protecting material will mean you don’t have to worry about reapplying sunblock every couple of hours. It can also help prevent you from getting bit by sea lice, or scratched on submerged rocks/coral while doing water activities. We’ve used ours for snorkeling, kayaking and swimming, all to great success.

ProTip: If you do buy a rash guard, go for one with full length sleeves. Again, not having to worry about applying sunscreen on your forearms is huge and it keeps you from getting a major farmer’s tan.

Purchase One Today: Consider something like this for men, and this for women.

Woman wearing hat and rash guard while at the beach to prevent sunburn.

9) Wear a Swimming Cap

Similar to a sun hat for land activities, having something to protect your scalp while swimming is a good idea.

If you’re like me though and don’t like how clingy swimming caps can be, then a baseball cap works as a good alternative. It’s lighter than a full brimmed sun hat and more functional during sports. Baseball caps can also be used for other activities, making them multi-functional, which is important for minimalist or light packers.

Man and Woman wearing prescription sunglasses.

10) Invest in Good Sunglasses

As crazy as it sounds, your eyes can get sunburned just as easily as the rest of your body. Considering most people rely on vision to get around, having sunburnt eyes would be a terrible inconvenience (not to mention extremely uncomfortable). It’s important that you wear sunglasses whenever in high UV conditions. This goes for both hot summer days, as well as cold wintery ones in the snow and ice.

Make sure to invest in a good pair of sunglasses that claim UV protection. The glasses should also create a nice seal against your head, which helps block out the light. If UV rays are entering from the top or sides of the lenses, then they’re not doing a good job of protecting your retina.

Sun protecting prescription sunglasses
Tom’s sunglasses create a very nice seal against UV rays.

If you wear prescription glasses then we recommend investing in a dedicated pair of prescription sunglasses. While transition lenses (where the lenses darken in bright light) are all the rage and more convenient, they just don’t do as good of a job. This is because everyday glasses frames aren’t made to block out light; they’re more fashionable than functional, so you’ll still find yourself squinting when outside. Trust us, we used to own transition lenses until trying a dedicated pair of prescription sunglasses. It was a game changer and we’ll never go back!

Save these tips for a rainy…er…I mean sunny day!

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We’re Laura & Tom, two geeks with a passion for travel.

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