swimmer with zinc sunscreen

5 Best Sunscreens for Water Sports Athletes

Did you know that the sun’s ultraviolet rays can penetrate through water? Despite being submerged at the water’s surface, swimmers are still at risk of sunburn.

Sunburns can cause skin damage, premature aging, and skin cancer. In the U.S., more than 9,500 people are diagnosed with skin cancer every day, and more than two people die of skin cancer every hour. Protecting your skin against ultraviolet (UV) rays helps to prevent these adverse effects.

This article is your complete guide to finding the best sunscreen for watersports. Whether you’re training for a triathlon or swimming for fitness, this article is for you. We’ll cover key considerations like SPF, sunscreen ingredients, water resistance, and more, as well as list the best sunscreen for athletes.

Considerations when purchasing sunscreen

  • Spray vs. lotion vs. stick
  • SPF
  • Water and sweat-resistant
  • Broad-spectrum protection
  • Ingredients
  • Reef-friendly
  • Best sunscreens for athletes

Spray vs. lotion vs. stick

assortment of sunscreen options

There is no superior type of sunscreen or method of application. The kind of sun protection you choose is up to personal preference. With spray sunscreen, note that is that it is easy to miss certain parts of the body. People tend to spray it on quickly, resulting in missed areas or layers too thin to get adequate protection. Whichever you choose, it’s always best to have a buddy with you to help with application to those hard-to-reach places.

SPF

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. It is the unit of measure for how much UV radiation exposure is required to cause sunburn while wearing sunscreen compared to unprotected skin. 

In 2011, The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) proposed that sunscreen labels be capped at SPF 50+ because there was not enough evidence to show that sunscreens with SPF values over 50 provided greater protection than sunscreens with SPF values of 50. However, in recent years, they have moved to increase the labels to SPF 60+. 

At a minimum, the FDA recommends using a sunscreen with an SPF of 15; however, the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) recommends a minimum for SPF 30. As an athlete or fitness goer swimming under the sun, you can use your discretion when selecting the right SPF strength for yourself.

Water and sweat-resistant sunscreen

Similar to the regulations on SPF 50+, the FDA has also banned using the terms “waterproof” and “sweatproof” for all sunscreen products. These terms tend to be misleading. No sunscreen can be completely waterproof or sweatproof. Water and sweat will inevitably cause the sunscreen to wear off. 

Any sunscreen that is labeled “water-resistant” has passed a regulated SPF test procedure. These sunscreens must indicate whether the water and sweat resistance is effective for 40 minutes or 80 minutes.

The time limit on water and sweat-resistant sunscreen are why it is essential to reapply often as your skin becomes wet.

Broad-spectrum protection

To understand broad-spectrum sunscreen, we must first understand the different types of UV rays. 

There are two types of UV rays: 

  1. Ultraviolet A (UVA)
  2. Ultraviolet B (UVB)

1. UVA rays

95% UVA rays from the sun pass through the ozone layer and reach the Earth’s surface. UVA rays have a longer wavelength than UVB rays. These rays penetrate deep into the skin, causing the cells to age prematurely, resulting in wrinkles.

2. UVB rays 

Unlike UVA rays, only 5% of UVB rays reach the Earth’s surface. UVB wavelengths are shorter and cause damage to the outer layers of your skin, which causes sunburn. The shorter the wavelength, the more intense and harmful the UV radiation. UVB rays are most commonly associated with causing skin cancers, although new research shows that UVA rays may also contribute to skin cancers.

When selecting a sunscreen, swimmers should choose a product that protects them from both UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen that offers protection against both types of dangerous UV rays is called broad-spectrum sunscreen.

someone putting on sunscreen

Sunscreen ingredients

Before slathering on any old sunscreen, it is important to understand the ingredients in each tube because some are safe, and some are harmful not only to humans but also to the environment (more on this below). Understanding what goes in each bottle will help you make the best decisions possible for both your skin and the Earth—this is especially important if you’re gathering gear for a triathlon, in which you’ll be on land as well as in open water.

Safe ingredients 

  • Zinc Oxide
  • Titanium Dioxide  

There are only two safe inorganic ingredients for use in sunscreen that are approved by the FDA. These ingredients provide a protective barrier on the skin’s surface that reflects UV rays away from the body. These ingredients are found in UV reflective sunscreen. Note that these ingredients are under investigation for inhalation concerns, so it is best to consider purchasing these safer sunscreens as a lotion and not a spray.

Harmful ingredients 

  • Avobenzone
  • Homosalate
  • Octinoxate 
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Oxybenzone 

 

These ingredients are present in UV absorbing sunscreens, which work like a sponge by absorbing the sun’s harmful rays.

The FDA is actively investigating these ingredients for being toxic and harmful to humans. They have been shown to systemically absorb into the body after one use, even being detected on the skin and in the blood weeks after use. Oxybenzone specifically has also been proven to cause hormonal disruptions.

As for environmental concerns, Octinoxate and Oxybenzone cause coral bleaching, which can wipe out entire ecosystems in a coral reef and result in a barren underwater landscape where its wildlife is forced to move away or die.

Note: Although not an ingredient used in making sunscreens, benzene (a known carcinogen used in plastics, dyes, and pesticides) has been detected in several popular sunscreens. This discovery is a reasonable justification for you to choose the most natural sunscreen products to protect both you and the planet.

Reef safe 

Up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen are estimated to wash into coral reefs around the globe each year. Coral reefs support more species per unit area than any other marine environment and are incredibly important for the vitality of ocean life.

reef damaged by human contamination

If you plan to swim in the ocean, wearing reef-safe sunscreen is the environmentally responsible thing to do. Every item on our list of best sunscreens for athletes below is reef-friendly, biodegradable, and free of harsh chemicals.

Best sunscreen for water sports athletes

  1. Thinksport Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+
  2. Badger Protect Land & Sea Sunscreen Cream - SPF 40
  3. Raw Elements Face & Body Tube SPF 30+
  4. All Good Mineral Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
  5. TropicSport SPF 30 Sunscreen

1. Thinksport Safe Sunscreen SPF 50+ 

Thinksport Safe offers the highest level of SPF protection to its athletic and environmentally conscious audience. Their sunscreen is organic, non-toxic, BPA-free, cruelty-free, and contains no animal by-products. This mineral-based sunscreen is dermatologist tested and is suitable for all skin types.

  • Sunscreen type: Lotion 
  • Broad-spectrum protection: Yes
  • Water resistance: 80-minutes
  • Reef safe: Yes
  • Active ingredient: Zinc oxide
  • Biodegradable: Yes

2. Badger Protect Land & Sea Sunscreen Cream - SPF 40

Another fantastic brand on the list, Badger, is cruelty-free, non-GMO, and hypoallergenic. Their sunscreen is 98% organic, using only four ingredients in total and no added fragrances. They also offer an eco-friendly tin as a packaging option.

  • Sunscreen type: Cream 
  • Broad-spectrum protection: Yes
  • Water and sweat resistance: 80-minutes
  • Reef safe: Yes
  • Active ingredient: Zinc Oxide
  • Biodegradable: Yes

3. Raw Elements Face & Body Tube SPF 30+ 

Another sunscreen with an incredibly simple ingredient list, their lotion consists of only certified all-natural ingredients. Raw Elements sunscreen is soy-free, gluten-free, and nut-free. They promise their lotion will never run or sting your eyes—which is excellent for swimmers if any of it manages to get inside their goggles.

  • Sunscreen type: Lotion
  • Broad-spectrum protection: Yes
  • Water-resistance: 80-minutes
  • Reef safe: Yes
  • Active ingredient: Zinc Oxide
  • Biodegradable: Yes

4. All Good Mineral Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30

All Good Mineral Sport Sunscreen is free from all the bad things: GMOs, parabens, gluten, and cruelty. This lotion is hypoallergenic and great for sensitive skin.

  • Sunscreen type: Lotion
  • Broad-spectrum protection: Yes
  • Water and sweat resistance: 80-minutes
  • Reef safe: Yes
  • Active ingredient: Zinc Oxide
  • Biodegradable: Yes

5. ​​TropicSport SPF 30 Sunscreen

TropicSport sunscreen comes in fully recyclable aluminum packaging, and its water-resistance time reaches four hours by Australian water resistance tests and one and 20 minutes by American tests.

  • Sunscreen type: Lotion
  • Broad-spectrum protection: Yes
  • Water-resistant: 240-minutes (passes both the U.S. FDA 80-min and Australian 240-min water resistance tests)
  • Reef safe: Yes
  • Active ingredients: Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide 
  • Biodegradable: Yes

Before you jump in

After applying sunscreen, be sure to wait 15 to 30 minutes before jumping in for a swim. For any water-resistant sunscreen to work correctly, it needs ample time to dry and be absorbed into the skin before it comes in contact with water.

While you wait, do some stretches, get your swim cap on (if you wear one), and adjust your goggles. If you’re looking to level up your swim and collect performance data like distance, splits times, stroke rate, calories burned, and more, grab your FORM Smart Swim Goggles too!