Sun protection for pasty white cruisers

Budding Naturalists on Isla Isabel

Sun protection- with sunscreen, sun protective clothing, and more- is something we take pretty seriously on Totem.

When I was a teenager, my mother was diagnosed with malignant melanoma. My uncle (her brother) died from metastasized skin cancer. Jamie’s family has a history of skin carcinomas, so you could say that we have the skin cancer genetic factors all wrapped up in the pasty-white-northern-European bag.

Dermatologists have told both Jamie and me that with our lifestyle and genes, skin cancer is not “if”, it’s “when”. One doc suggested we should reconsider our choice and stay home instead of going cruising. Well, that clearly didn’t happen, but perhaps it has pushed us to think more about sun protection than just making sure we had a few bottles on board before we left. To help others with there planning… here’s an outline of the things we do on Totem to address the risks of our added sun exposure.

1. Finding a safe, effective sunscreen

The crazy chemicals that go into a lot of mass market products freak me out a little, so I spent time researching something that was both effective, affordable (we could go through one of those wee bottles of pricey “organic” lotions a day- that adds up FAST), and especially- not laced with toxic junk. That sh*t is bad for our bodies and bad for the environment! And it’s sad, really sad, but many sunscreens contain chemicals which are highly toxic to reefs.

My primary resource for researching was the Environmental Working Group‘s database for personal care products, Skin Deep. This is an amazing resource with a specific set of research into sunscreen that’s really helpful. It doesn’t just look at the toxicity of ingredients, it looks at the effectiveness of the sunscreen itself, to make evaluating the masses of products available that much easier.

Based on EWG and our own trials, we settled on a particular sunscreen. I’m happy with the SPF 30 rating, there’s minimal junk in the carrier lotion, and really like that the active ingredients are all mineral based. Using zinc or titanium dioxide is effective for both UVA and UVB, it works as soon as it’s applied, and it’s gentler on sensitive skin. The unexpected bonus of our selection: it is available in large (gallon, even!) sizes. Given the volume of sunscreen we use, this is both sensible packaging and more economical. The jugs are stored in the head, and we decant into smaller squeeze bottles that are kept handy.

Our product of choice is omitted, because some of the brand’s formulas contain toxic junk. So, do your homework! At least Hawaii is outlawing those sunscreens now. So did Palau, and they made a great list of ingredients to avoid. Make time for the minor effort to check ingredients based on articles in those links to find a truly reef-safe option.

Stocking up was worthwhile. It’s been hard to find acceptable sunscreen outside the US. There are generally big brands available anywhere you can find pasty white tourists, but not the selection and definitely not the types we wanted- and often at a premium. We were able to find a brand that passed muster in Australia, but it’s much more expensive, and there’s a lot of wasted packaging since we have to buy a score of 200 ml bottles. I’d love to make our own- I already make lotion for our family, so turning that lotion into sunscreen isn’t a huge leap. The next time we have visitors from home, I’m hoping to order a few key ingredients to give it a try.

2. Actually using the sunscreen

We use a lot of sunscreen. Once you find something you like, figure out how much you use per person per day, multiply that out, and stock up- you might be surprised how much you need. Consider shelf life, too. Mineral-based sunscreens will have a better shelf life than those which rely on chemical additives. Our magic number was about 1 gallon per six months.

This stuff is fantastic. As it’s on, it’s working (as opposed to needing an application 20 minutes before exposure for those chemicals to go to work). It also lasts pretty much all day- only when we have a VERY active, mostly outdoors day do we need to reapply- as long as it was put on generously in the morning. On the other hand, it’s fairly heavy, and somewhat greasy. It leaves that telltale white cast. Because it’s heavier, it rubs off on clothes and can be a pain to get out.

Because of the consistency, we’re looking at different sunscreens to use- especially on our faces, since our oldest has hit the teen years and started to get some acne. The last thing he needs is having his skin clogged up with sunscreen, and we don’t want to give him a reason not to put it on.

3. Covering up

We use some clothing that is rated with an SPF factor, but also look to non-rated clothes for sensible covering up. Honestly, though, we skew more towards using sunscreen than layering up- it’s just too hot in many of the places we’ve been. Brands like Patagonia, Coolibar, and Sun Precautions have great websites full of SPF rated clothing where you can blow your budget. It’s a harder sell with the kids… again, if they can choose it, they are more likely to wear it.

4. Wearing a hat

One of our blog readers pointed out we rarely have hats on in photos. We do actually wear them pretty religiously, but they photograph really poorly! I am famously the last person in the dinghy because I am doing The Hat Check and grabbing any still needed from their stowing spot under the dodger. Thanks to my Uncle John, we go in for full brims- at least 3″ wide (2″ isn’t enough; 4″ is great for protection, but sometimes too much windage to be good while sailing). Uncle John wore caps playing polo, with only a brim in the front, and his skin cancer started at the back of his unprotected neck.

The secret to making hats work with the kids has been to let them choose their own- once you decide what options meets the standards, of course. If they don’t like the hat, getting them to wear it will be a constant battle.

5. SPF swim gear

There are a whole new set of dimensions to dealing with sun protection in the water. First- does your sunscreen cut it?  Ours works, but we have found that it’s sometimes much more appealing to wear cover-up swim gear. We favor long sleeved rash guards tops paired with pants, but have full body “stinger suits” as well.

I thought it would be a hard sell with the kids, but mother nature fixed that one for me. The first time they jumped in the water for a swim in the Sea of Cortez, our then-six year old immediately got a nasty jellyfish sting on one of her legs. Covering up fixed that problem! No more stings, and great sun protection. There’s a great little shop in La Paz that will make a custom suit from your choice of materials at a great price. Letting kids choose their own material was a massive help for getting the suits worn later.

One unexpected area of sun exposure has been scalps. Although we’re good with the hats on land, they don’t really go swimming, and our girls have very fine, very blonde hair. We discovered that swim caps were a help, after Siobhan wore hers to help combat swimmer’s ear while we were in PNG last year. It also made getting her mask on/off more comfortable, and it’s great sun protection.

6. Sunglasses

I’m completely dedicated to wearing sunglasses (wow, sensitive eyes), and still mourning the loss of my beloved Maui Jims. Whoever picked them up at the North Sydney Public Library… I hope you love them too! Everyone on board has polarized sunglasses, and after seeing the sun-fried eyes of many Pacific Islanders who have not had the opportunity to wear sunglasses, we’re all a little better about it… although we honestly aren’t good about this- except me, they live on me..

7. Being smart

One of the best things we do is just to try to avoid being the sun during peak hours. It’s really not fun to be hanging out in the tropics during the hottest part of the day anyway, so this is pretty easy guideline to live with.

Logging hours in the cockpit on a passage can add up to a lot of sun: reflection on the water gives meaningful exposure to rays. One of the ways we deal with this is with weathercloths. They’re long strips of Sunbrella that run from the cockpit to the stern, and offer some added protection from all manner of weather- including reflected sun. Our dodger isn’t big enough- yes, that’s the dodger we had custom made. Live and learn! It seemed fine in the Pacific Northwest, where we thought  more about rain than sun. Our awning, a product of the Prior Owner, also doesn’t quite cut it. We’re hoping to replace it with something that suits our needs better somewhere in Southeast Asia.

Hopefully, the awning lasts until we are in the right place with time to get a new one made. It’s shot. Five years of tropical sun exposure, and every seam has worn thin. The weathercloths aren’t much better. Stitched-on webbing has pulled out. Jerry cans and a spare anchor have chafed holes through the sides. The material that once looked pretty indestructible is now closer to tissue than iron. And you know what? That’s fantastic. It’s a great demonstration that it has done exactly what it is supposed to do: provide a sacrificial line of defense between our bodies and the sun’s rays.

9 Responses

  1. Another good option for sun protection clothing is Mott 50. They focus on women but i read they are coming out with a line for children next. It’s more on the fashionable/practical side as opposed to hiking/camping gear that I’ve found from Patagonia/Colombia, etc. They make swim cover ups and great hats all with UPF 50 built right in. I’m blonde and pale, so making sure I am covered as we sail is very important.

    Thanks for the tips on the gallon size jugs of sunscreen. I definitely need to get myself one of those!

    1. Mott 50 sounds interesting- thanks Kelley, I’ll check it out! Sun Precautions (Solumbra) is relatively non-safari looking as well, although the rest are pretty sports oriented. On the other hand, that usually suits us. 🙂

  2. We were on honeymoon in Bali on the 26th (Lovina Beach), we saw your boat lying just off the coast and snapped a slightly unclear picture with our 300mm lens. The reason we spotted you is that we want to do a sailing circumnavigation of our own in a couple of years, and we thought you might be doing the same. The picture is at:

    Good luck on your further trip!


    Robert & Marjolein Campbell

    1. Robert & Marjolein – wow, thank you so much for sharing your photos! I love that you saw Totem from the beach, then found our blog. If only we could have met while we were there, we love to share our enthusiasm with others who want to go cruising!

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