It burns! Dealing with the sizzling tropical sun


Growing up in the Seattle area I didn’t spend a lot of time worrying about my sun exposure. Given recent research on Vitamin D and sun, if anything, I should have been trying to get more sun!

Questions like “is my sunscreen killing coral reefs?” or “will this sun shirt give me heat exhaustion?” were pretty far from my mind. Once we started boating, even in the WA/BC area, I had to take my sun exposure on the water more seriously. It was surprisingly easy to get burned on the water. However, it wasn’t until we arrived in the tropics and we started kiteboarding that I really had to get serious. Over the years, this is what we've come up with.

P1050605Block not screen: Our first line of defense is to block the sun with clothing: hats, rash guards*, long sleeve loose shirts (with built in or washed in sun protection), etc.

For areas we don’t cover with cloth – like our face or hands – for various reasons related to chemicals, effectiveness and water resistance, Carol and I have changed over almost completely to physical sunscreens (sunblocks) rather than chemical sunscreens. If you don’t know the difference and are curious, go here and scroll to the bottom section. Simply put, we wear zinc or titanium oxide based sunscreens.

So, do we look like 1980s lifeguards? Noooo…kind of…it depends..sometimes yes.

For our sunblocks. we divide them into a three types: those that can be worn every day without looking ridiculous, and those that look a bit ridiculous but are extremely effective when spending the worst section of the day kiting on the water in the tropical sun, and those that look completely ridiculous but are absolutely effective and we can use if we are already a bit burned or are spending too many days in a row kiteboarding our buns off in the sun.

Everyday: Our favorite sunblock which we can wear on our face without looking ridiculous is a tub (not stick) of clear zinc oxide. This is one of those items that we have had guests carry to us in their luggage because it can be hard to find while traveling and we don’t want to do without. I admit I still wear chemical sunscreen on my lips (some form of chapstick lip balm like this one with a light sunscreen).

Everyday is a bit of a misnomer; I don’t actually put either of these on every day because I don’t walk around in the full sun for long periods every day. If I am only going into the sun for a short period, I just put on a hat and a sun shirt. But if I need more than that, I reach for a tub of clear zinc. It rubs in without feeling too sticky (but more sticky than some chemical sunscreens), it lasts a long time, looks normal and really works.

P1050782 (3)Ghosting: When we get ready to go on the water, we resort to zinc or titanium oxide in a stick format which goes on thicker and pastier (and thus less comfortably). Again, we tend to use a simple brand found in a drug store like this. TIP: You can often find sunblock in a brand that normally makes chemical sunscreen like Neutrogena by looking at the baby formulas which is how we found this one.

Although these sticks are generally advertised as clear they leave you white and pasty looking which we call “ghosting”. Once we are “ghosted up”, we can go a full day of kiting without reapplying except on our lips, or on a really long day, on our noses.

The only thing we have found that really works on our lips long enough on the water to be worth it is Lip Armor which you can find at REI. Even with Lip Armor we need to reapply once on a long day because of all of the ways that it gets rubbed off your lips (drinking water, shouting encouragement, epic kissing sessions, you know the drill).

P1050369The FULL Monty: If we’ve been naughty and burned ourselves, we go with the super sticky, not very comfortable, but incredibly effective Badger Sport sunscreen again with Lip Armor. You can see Carol in this photo after he let his nose get burned and so applied a very thick layer of Badger on his burned bits. It is impossible to get burned through this. Don’t be fooled by the SPF 35 rating and you should read a bit about water resistance ratings if you are into water sports. I’ll take an SPF 35 sunblock that doesn’t break down or easily rub off over a suncreen SPF 55 that comes off as soon as I get wet and in the sun. I am fairly certain you could coat yourself in Badger Sport and walk across the desert.

Except that you couldn’t because, the thicker the sun block, the sweatier it makes me. This isn’t a problem kite boarding because we are in and out of the water and in the wind, but it is quite difficult for me to wear even the Ghosting levels of sun block and then go for a hike. I find myself not wearing sunscreen until we reach the summit (but wearing a sun shirt and hat) and then applying some every day zinc, and walking down in my tank top (and hat).

The Burly Girly FULL Monty: A couple of different surfer girlfriends of mine turned me onto Shiseido’s sunscreen stick. It is still thick. It is still pasty. But it doesn’t make my skin clarity unhappy like some of the other thick stuff. I used the “translucent” which was still super, duper Ghosty (but excellent) and have also used the tinted (which makes me look like I’m going kiteboard clubbing – I feel the need to wear tinted lip balm at the same time to complete the makeup vibe).  Even though I’m joking about both, I love them. If I weren’t so tanned I would prefer the clear because I’m not interested in looking like I did full makeup for a day of watersports, but with my tan it looks less shocking to wear the tinted. Both stay on forever and really, really keep me from burning.

And that’s it. I feel a little silly writing about this because sunscreen isn’t rocket science. Still, it took me a few years of being in the tropics to figure out what worked for us.

*I am a ridiculous fan of NRS rash guards and also their .5mm neoprene Hydroskin line (including shorts!). They last 3-4 times as long as any other rash guard I’ve used. We are, of course, really hard on our rash guards. We use them while kiting and while snorkeling, they get dried in the tropical sun regularly and not washed as often as they should. NRS never completely loses its elasticity like other brands (which turn into hilarious blouses). We don’t get anything for saying this.


  1. Thanks very much for this post. I am very fair and sun exposure is the one thing I have to battle out on the sea.

    1. We are both naturally light skin and light eyes so I understand!



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