The Best Sunscreens for Travel in 2019

Stacey Ebert

Sunscreen while traveling can be tricky for some people. If you’re brand specific it can be hard to travel with enough of a hard-to-find brand in a carry on bag. The best approach is to buy upon arrival.

Sunscreen, sunscreen, and more sunscreen! While I believe that the packing mantra of ‘take out half the stuff and insert twice the money’ still holds true, the one thing I never leave home without is sunscreen. We only get one skin and it’s our job to take care of it. Whether your skin is the sensitive type, the type that burns easily, or the type that craves vitamin D regardless of the outside temperature – if we don’t take care of it – it’s bound to remind us at a later date – so without question, pack that sunscreen, use it and don’t forget to reapply.

There are a million sunscreen choices out there. Face, stick, body, spray, eco-friendly, natural, organic, kid-friendly – the list goes on and on. Perhaps you have your favorite, or those tried and true ones that you never leave home without. Me, I’m the one with birthmarks galore and sensitive skin. When I found one that worked for me, I stuck with it and always pack it for travel. Between lifeguarding for years and my husband’s newly acquired broken leg scar, we’ve invested our fair share in colorful zinc options on top of sunscreen sticks and lotions to remain protected from the dangerous rays are lurking in that bright blue sky.

Packing Sunscreen for Travel

The tricky thing with packing sunscreen is that the 3-1-1 TSA rule is still in effect full force – so if you’re choosing to fly with sunscreen and carry on only, it will have to be in packages of 3.4 oz or less, or a stick.

If you have a favorite brand then bring it with you in a go-tube (or several). If you buy travel sized sunscreen, keep your eye out for bottles with a carabiner clip that can be added to the outside of your handbags or packs once you land in your destination.

If you’ve forgotten to pack it, your skin can handle new variety, or buying local makes you smile, then ditch the weight altogether and pick up some protection when you land. Whatever you choose – buy it, use it and don’t forget to reapply often.

Sunscreen vs. Sunblock

Sunscreen and sunblock – what on earth is the difference? Although ingredients might differ, both options are quite effective. Many sunblocks contain titanium dioxide and zinc which help to deflect, or block, any damaging sun rays. Sunscreen is not a block, but rather the ingredients themselves absorb those harmful rays. If sunscreen is your choice, then be sure to use one that blocks both UVA and UVB rays.

What do UVA, UVB, & SPF Mean?

There is an almost overwhelming amount of information out there to remember when it comes to skin and sun protection. There are two basic things to balance in sun exposure and skincare. First, remember that we all do need a certain percentage of vitamin D in our body, which is made naturally with sun exposure, although many people take supplements to get the necessary amounts. Second, is protection from the sun’s harmful rays. Remember that “broad spectrum” is the verbiage that covers the bases of both UVA and UVB rays.

UVA Rays

UVA rays are the ever-present ones – the rays that are around regardless of season, or weather. UVA rays are responsible for all the signs that go along with premature aging of your skin. UVA rays pass through skin, glass and even clothing. 

UVB Rays

UVB rays are not as strong as their ‘A’ mates, but these are the rays known to cause skin cancers and sunburns. These are also the rays that help us produce vitamin D.

SPF

SPF is, an acronym that stands for sun protection factor. This is the key notifier that tells of the product’s ability to actually protect against those harmful rays from the glowing orb of goodness in the sky. The higher the SPF number, the greater the protection offered, but not in the way you might think.

According to the American Melanoma Foundation and SPF 15 lotion ‘absorbs 93%’ of ultraviolet radiation’. The number of sunscreen and its level of protection does not go up incrementally from there. The same study showed that ‘an SPF of 34 absorbs 97%’.

Remember, whether it says water resistant, sweat resistant or any other performance promise – no matter what you choose – always apply at least ½ hour before exposure to the sun and re-apply every 2 hours after that.

Balancing Vitamin D and Protection: there’s an app for that!

There are tons of humans around the globe who are vitamin D deficient. The dance between getting some vitamin D from the sun and protecting our skin from sun damage is a delicate one. 10-20 minutes a few times a week of unprotected sun exposure to certain areas of the body can help in the production of vitamin D – and then of course – PUT ON YOUR SUNSCREEN!

In our super busy world where we’re all heavily attached to our phones, there’s even an app to help us out. Check out dminder, the app that tracks and manages your intake of vitamin D from the sun.

Best Sunscreen for Lips

Those smackers that manage your ability to talk, eat and kiss your puppy, need love and protection from the sun, too. When lathering from head to toe, don’t forget to add some extra layers to your lips.

The skin on our mouths is thinner and this area is super susceptible to UV damage. Be sure to give it an extra coating of protection. Of course, if you’re like me, and always forget that extra step, be sure to have a UV protection chapstick thrown in every bag, pouch, or pack and do your best to remember to use it often.

Lip gloss shine, hydrating properties and sun protection all in one.

Infused with consciously chosen ingredients, the positives of being chemical free in this product mean a lower SPF – re-apply liberally.

Made from sugar, choose clear or various tints. This sunscreen uses black currant seeds, grapeseed oil, as well as vitamins C & E to provide hydration.

Eco-friendly and chemical free, infused with fruit butters, gluten-free, organic & hypoallergenic.

Best Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin

From the moment I had a choice, you would find me on the beach. I’m the aquatics director who has a sensitivity to chlorine, the traveler with birthmarks who quite literally chased the sun around the world and the asthmatic whose lungs aren’t happy when a new scent (no matter how potent) is introduced – so, if you’re like me and have sensitive everything – keep an eye out for sunscreens that your skin (and your lungs) can live with.

Formulated specifically for sensitive skin, this is a broad spectrum SPF sunscreen.

A vitamin E infusion, with a lightweight and matte finish; super sheer and able to be worn under makeup.

Organic and considered reef safe, this sunscreen contains beeswax, sunflower oil and sea buckthorn oil; has antioxidant and anti-inflammatory capabilities.

This mineral based sunscreen is the winner of 2 Reader’s Choice Awards.

Best Overall Sunscreens

Seriously – look up sunscreen and the internet explodes with options. In reality, I think it’s like what the staff at the coffee plantation in Costa Rica told us when we asked ‘what’s your favorite coffee’ and they replied, ‘it doesn’t matter whose it is – the one you like the most is the favorite’. If it works for your skin, protects from the damaging rays, meets your price range, and travels with you when you need it most – it’s the best for you.

But – if you’re in the market for something new, something different, or one that fits as many categories as possible, here are some options:

Australian made – top rated, recommended by dermatologists, hypoallergenic, fragrance/chemical free, mineral based, and good for sensitive skin. This one comes with a fancy cap that changes color in the presence of any harmful sun rays to remind you to reapply often.

Highly recommended by users, but not a budget option.

Sun Bum provides broad spectrum protection and a boost of vitamin E. Shawn, another Tortuga writer, loves Sun Bum.

Coppertone is Wirecutter’s pick for best overall sunscreen. With a compact bottle, broad spectrum protection, no fragrance, and no white film all for an affordable price.

No-Ad is budget friendly and high quality in a value-size bottle. Paraben free and unscented (although still has a bit of a sunscreen odor).

Super fun products that are super fun to wear; uses Cellular Response Technology, includes anti-aging technology, and no chemical scent at all.

Angela, Tortuga’s partnership coordinator, is a big fan of Supergoop. She told me, “Supergoop is my go-to-brand for sunscreens…and I’ve never had a problem with [the sunscreen] streaking.”

Best Suncreens for Face

As a kid at camp, I remember campers who didn’t use any sunscreen and then there were those who had separate ones for their face and body. At 13, I had no clue that there was any difference in those screens – but today, it’s clear that those specific face sunscreens do meet different needs than the full body ones. Whether it’s for unclogged pores, sensitive skin or that whole oily vs. dry factor – perhaps a particular face lotion is for you.

Tortuga’s Marketing Director, Taylor, swears by Supergoop face lotions. She told me, “Supergoop is the ONLY face sunscreen I’ve used that doesn’t make me break out.”

Highly recommended, yet fairly expensive, this one is hydrating, uses Cell-Ox Shield technology and antioxidants. Wear it under your daily makeup for an oil free and matte finish!

A winner on Wirecutter, if you feel the need for an affordable face sunscreen – pop this one on the list; non greasy, unscented, as well as vegan & cruelty free.

Great for sensitive skin, hypoallergenic, fragrance and paba free, contains 100% minerals (no chemicals).

Budget friendly, lightweight and oil free; Neutrogena delivers.

This sunscreen’s secret ingredient is the additional hydrating power of colloidal oatmeal. A good budget option.

Best Spray Sunscreens

Ugh – don’t get me started on these! When you’re peacefully reading your book at the beach and all of a sudden you gulp a lungful of tropically scented chemical – you know someone upwind from you is spraying sunscreen.

While they’re trying to hit their own body or that of their children, partner or friends, most of the time they miss and the particles fly wildly around the beach, hit someone else’s lungs, or drop onto the sand and then are regularly swallowed up by the precious ocean. While those sprays may make it easier to cover a wiggly child or reach your own back without having to be a contortionist – aerosols and sprays are rarely eco-friendly. If other options don’t work for you – it’s good that these exist – but there are better options for other people, and the eco-system.

This spray suncreen is vegan, chemical & cruelty free, includes vitamin E & cooling cucumber.

This sunscreen is chemical free, and takes it to the next level with hyaluronic acid and silicone powder for hydration and wrinkle prevention.

Listed on Wirecutter, easy to hold, puts out a more direct stream of sunscreen; smells of a typical sunscreen odor.

Broad spectrum protection for sport performance, this is SPF 50 and waterproof.

The natural kinds – but, still, only if you have too, please!

These sprays are the best of the bunch for their lack of chemicals (and use of essential oils) as well as attempts at being more environmentally friendly (use of zinc oxide minerals). If sprays are your thing but you want to do a little better, upgrade to one of these.

Made with essential oils (including red raspberry seeds, coconut creme and jojoba), this spray is non-aerosol and eco-friendly.

Continuous spray, fragrance-free, perfect for use on sensitive skin. This one is also designated reef friendly.

Best Sunscreen Stick

I can remember when the stick option first appeared on the market – I was so excited that there was a non-liquid sunscreen to fling in a pocket and know that at least my face and arms could be covered on any outdoor adventure. Since their inception – they’ve only gotten better.

Stick sunscreen is the ultimate travel-friendly option because you can pack as much as you like and not have to worry about the TSA liquids rule limiting you to 3.4 oz bottles.

A nice wide shape, easy glide, usable all over – uses Helioplex technology, non-greasy, lightweight feel and texture. As usual, Neutrogena is on the list.

With Helioplex sunscreen technology this stick sunscreen comes in as the most affordable option with a whopping 50+ SPF.

Sun Bum’s stick is broad spectrum, easily applied, vegan, and chemical free. An affordable price point is a bonus!

Filled with hydrating goodness, Supergoop is more expensive, but also better for your skin. If you’re sensitive, try this one.

Best Travel Sunscreens

Sunscreen while traveling can be tricky for some people. If you’re brand specific, it can be hard to travel with enough of a hard to find brand in a carry on travel backpack.

Some of the better sunscreens do come in travel sizes, but for more than occasional use, it’s better to buy your sunscreen when you arrive.

One work around for those of us who need a special brand is to order it online and have it shipped to your destination ahead of time. Many hotels will accept a package in a guest’s name.

Try these three travel sized sunscreen combos:

The combo of a primer, base layer, and sunscreen makeup setting spray ensure that your face is covered. Supergoop rocks.

SPF 70 and friendly to sensitive skin, Neutrogena is an excellent budget brand. This will get your beach holiday started.

Sunscreen, SPF 30 lip balm, and some aloe cream for post-sun moisturizing round out this travel ready kit in a zippered pouch. Sun Bum doesn’t disappoint.

Best Reef Friendly Sunscreens

‘The National Park Service estimates that up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters areas in and around reefs every year and studies show that chemicals in these sunscreens may be contributing to the declining health of coral.’ Between climate change, pollution, and other risks to the environment, sunscreen isn’t the only problem our reefs deal with – but like all other environmental options – we have the ability to affect change with our choices. When looking for those eco-friendly options – what does it all mean?

What Does “Reef Friendly” Mean?

Often times it’s the chemicals that block UV rays, like oxybenzone and octinoxate, that can contribute to coral bleaching. These chemicals have been found to turn coral white, putting it under harmful stress and leaving it quite susceptible to destruction.

Places like Hawaii and Key West, Florida have now banned the sale of sunscreens containing the above chemicals. Although there are no FDA approved regulations and there are other chemicals that also cause damage to marine life, there are some other ways we can continue to protect ourselves while helping to protect our oceans and the creatures of the sea.

How to Stay Reef Friendly & Sun Protected

  • Avoid chemicals that can be harmful to the environment
  • Try to use lotions and creams that are more mineral-based or non-nano (can’t be ingested by the coral) – think titanium oxide or zinc oxide
  • Go paraben free
  • Ditch any sprays (these guys often miss the body, wind up in mid air, land on the sand and then get washed into the water)
  • Wait awhile before jumping into the water with newly applied sunscreen
  • Put the protection into your clothing and lessen the need for screen altogether

Here are three of the best reef friendly sunscreen options:

A mineral based, reef-safe, chemical free, broad spectrum, non-nano zinc particles, top rated in Wirecutter.

Fragrance free, reef-safe, chemical free, mineral based, hypoallergenic, and includes the use of organic oils.

This is a natural, mineral based, zinc-based sunscreen that won’t harm you, or the fish!

TL;DR

Whether it’s a cloudy day or one filled with endless blue skies, the sun’s rays are always there. Sunscreen is important, at home and while traveling. When choosing the best sunscreen for your adventure:

  • Consider your skin type and the activity you’re participating in
  • Know the impact your choices have on the environment
  • It’s okay to choose one for face, another for lips, and a third for body
  • If you’re traveling, remember to buy travel sized bottles (3.4 oz or less)
  • Use it and REAPPLY OFTEN!
 

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