Understanding Sun Protection
By Danielle Buenrostro, Last updated: 5/28/2019
When on the water, it’s important to protect our skin and eyes from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Water and sand reflect the sun and intensify the damaging rays, which can increase your chances of sunburn and skin cancer.
According to the American Academy of Dermatology, one in five Americans will develop skin cancer. The good news is a few steps of protection like wearing sunscreen, protective clothing and sunglasses can go a long way to minimizing your risks.
Besides avoiding the sun, using sunscreen with a Sun Protection Factor (SPF) of 30 or more is the best way to reduce the risk of skin cancer, premature skin aging and wrinkling caused by the sun’s ultraviolet light. The American Academy of Dermatology says daily sunscreen use reduces the likelihood of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, by 50%.
Dermatologists recommend wearing sunscreen with broad-spectrum protection from both ultraviolet A (UVA) and ultraviolet B (UVB) rays that is water resistant. Sunscreens can’t claim to be sweatproof or waterproof, according to the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Apply sunscreen about 20 minutes before going outside so it has time to take effect. Reapply at least every two hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming or sweating. Some products say to reapply as often as every 40-80 minutes.
Zinc is a mineral added to some sunscreens that acts as a physical barrier to UV rays. Think of a lifeguard with white sunscreen on their nose. Today’s zinc-based sunscreens are available in clear formulas. For example, Team Alvimedica used clear zinc sunscreen during the nine-month-long 2014-2015 Volvo Ocean Race around the world because it protects their skin, won’t irritate their eyes and is fragrance-free.
Sunscreen protects us while we're in the water but the chemical UV filters used in some sunscreens can harm marine environments as it washes off our skin. Oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common UV filters, can bleach and kill coral prompting Hawaii and Key West, Florida to pass legislature banning the sale of sunscreens containing these chemicals. Reef safe sunscreens are produced without oxybenzone and octinoxate and often use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as UV filters instead. These products do not harm coral reefs and are less likely to irritate your eyes. Look for suncreens labelled as reef safe the next time you buy to avoid inadvertently harming marine ecosystems.
Sunscreens are available in lotion formulas, spray formulas and dial-up stick formulas. Find one that works best for you so that you’re sure to wear it every day.
And don’t forget your lips. We recommend lip balms that are designed to protect the thin layers of skin on your lips. We also like medicated formulas when we spend all day fishing and need protection from the wind as well.
For a breakdown of how sunscreens compare to each other in terms of the percent of UV radiation that they block, see the table “UV Ratings and Protection Categories” at the end of this article.
Sun Protective Clothing
Garments designed to block the sun’s harmful rays are rated by their Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) similar to SPF for sunscreen. Look for clothing with a rating of 15 (good) to 50+ (excellent) for the best sun defense. Keep in mind when the fabric gets wet or stretches, the level of protection decreases.
Factors that effect the UPF rating of a garment include its color (lighter colors generally have lower UPF ratings than darker colors), the size of the yarns the product is constructed from and their opacity and fiber content, the tightness of the knit or weave and optical brighteners added in the dyeing process.
Synthetic fibers such as Lycra, nylon and polyester offer more protection than bleached cottons, and shiny or lustrous semi-synthetic fabrics like rayon reflect more UV than do matte ones, such as linen, which tend to absorb rather than reflect UV. Finally, consider the fabric’s weight and density — heavy denim will provide more protection than sheer satin.
Columbia’s Omni-Shade® technology provides UPF 40 sun protection, which is ideal for an all-day paddling trip.
High-tech clothing like the Columbia sportswear found at West Marine utilizes a tight weave construction with UVA and UVB absorbing and reflecting fabric to protect against sun damage. Long sleeve shirts by Columbia feature Omni-Shade® technology, which provides UPF 40 sun protection, and are perfect for an all-day paddling trip. For angling adventures, we recommend UPF 50+ sun protection in a teched-out performance hoodie with breathing holes for ultimate coverage.
Women will love wide brim hats that offer UPF 30 protection and also float. Men will appreciate the full coverage and versatility of cachalot caps that offer UPF 40+ rating and a back neck flap that can be tucked into a pocket. Another way to protect your neck from the sun’s damaging rays is with a buff, also known as neck gaiters, bandanas or sunshields. Seamless tubes of sweat wicking fabric can be worn to cover your face, head, neck and ears from direct exposure to the sun while you’re enjoying time on the water.
The best sunglasses offer 100 percent ultraviolet (UV) protection, are of the best optical quality and are impact resistant. Long-term exposure to UV radiation in sunlight is linked to eye disease, including cataracts, according to the American Academy of Ophthalmology. Look for sunglasses with a full spectrum UV coating for ultimate protection.
All sunglasses must meet impact standards set by the FDA for safety but no lens is truly indestructible. Glass lens have the best optical clarity and are scratch resistant. Composite lens are less likely to shatter but scratch easily. Nylon or composite frames are lightweight and strong while metal frames are adjustable but less durable.
The best materials for boating sunglass frames are lightweight, flexible and durable materials such as nylon, propionate or acetate. Metal frames can quickly corrode if they are not specifically made to be used on the ocean. Frame hardware should be corrosion-proof, and most of the sunglasses we sell have corrosion-proof nickel, silver or stainless steel hardware.
Although polarized glasses don’t protect against UV rays, they do filter reflected glare and reduce eyestrain. However, most polarized glasses also have a UV coating. We recommend them for watersports and fishing activities because they enhance color quality, improve depth perception and your ability to see deeper into the water.
UPF Ratings and Protection Categories
|UPF Rating||Protection Category||Percent of UV Radiation Blocked|
|UPF 15 - 24||Good||93.3 - 95.9|
|UPF 25 - 39||Very Good||96.0 - 97.4|
|UPF 40 - 50+||Excellent||97.5 - 99+|