Soliciting Expertise: What Stands Out as the Best Sunscreen for Athletes?

Living here in North America, we're no strangers to the relentless summer heat and its effects on our skin. The sun's getting higher, and those UV rays are becoming more intense — something the FDA warns us about. And with the days stretching out, there's a lot more time for our skin to bear the brunt of that increased exposure. The silver lining? Sunscreen brands are getting creative — they're thinking about our skin and the planet, and that's giving us a whole slew of options. I'm about to drop some wisdom on how to keep your skin smiling under that fiery ball in the sky, point out what you should be hunting for in top-notch sunscreens, especially for us triathletes, and I'll throw in a shout-out to some of my personal picks for each leg of the race.

What's Your Plan?

Let's take a moment to consider your outdoor workout routine before diving into sunscreen selections. Depending on your activity, your sunscreen needs will differ. For swimmers, waterproof sunscreen is a must to fend off those rays in the pool. Cyclists embarking on extended rides should pack a portable tube for reapplication. And runners? Opt for a high-endurance, sweat-resistant formula that can outlast your longest run—unless you fancy a mid-session dry-off for a sunscreen top-up. It's common for triathletes to juggle different sunscreens for each segment of their training—yes, it's a bit more gear to manage. But take note: even the priciest sunscreens are specialized for a reason. We triathletes must ensure we're applying our sun defense strategically.

Understanding SPF?

It's not as straightforward as it used to be; recent studies indicate that the type of UV protection a sunscreen offers is actually more crucial than just a high SPF number. For us in the triathlon world, SPF is somewhat less relevant since we aren't just lying still in the sun—regardless of the SPF value, we must reapply at regular intervals, or even SPF 1,000,000 is useless. For context, SPF indicates the theoretical time you can spend in the sun with sunscreen before you receive the equivalent exposure of one unprotected hour. So, if you usually burn after 20 minutes without protection and you apply SPF 50, in theory, you'd be covered for 10 hours of sun exposure. However, this calculation changes if you're sweating or swimming, making it ineffective. Additionally, remember that SPF only measures UVB protection, not UVA. While there's some debate over how much damage UVA rays cause, it's still crucial to choose a broad-spectrum sunscreen that shields you from both types of UV radiation.

Determining the Safety of Sunscreen: What's Good and What's Questionable?

The debate over sunscreen safety has heated up in recent years. For those prioritizing safety—possibly at a higher cost or with more frequent applications—let's consider the FDA's stance on which sunscreen ingredients are deemed safe for your health:

The FDA classifies two ingredients as "generally recognized as safe and effective" (GRASE):

  1. Titanium dioxide
  2. Zinc oxide

However, there are two ingredients not considered GRASE, and it's worth noting these are not present in sunscreens sold in the U.S., so any brands touting their absence aren't offering a unique benefit:

  1. PABA
  2. Trolamine salicylate

The FDA is currently reviewing the following ingredients due to concerns about their absorption into the body, to decide whether they can be classified as GRASE:

Currently under review and commonly found in U.S. sunscreens:

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

Not commonly found in U.S. products and also under review:

  • Cinoxate
  • Dioxybenzone
  • Meradimate
  • Padimate O
  • Sulisobenzone

According to the FDA, the mere absorption of an ingredient into the skin and body doesn't inherently mean it's unsafe. Nor does the FDA's call for further testing imply danger. In essence, the FDA's recent study revealing absorption of certain sunscreen ingredients suggests a need for more comprehensive testing by manufacturers to evaluate the implications of long-term use.

To sum it up, further independent investigation is essential for the ingredients that are on the fence for receiving the FDA's GRASE status, and currently, the FDA remains unconvinced of their safety for frequent users like athletes.

Additionally, it's worth noting that the sunscreen components ending in -ate, -ene, and -one are prevalent in basic products found at your local grocery, convenience, or drug stores. These are also often the most affordable options that blend into the skin most seamlessly. My suggestion? As triathletes, looking ultra-stylish during training isn't our priority, and dealing with a bit of white residue from zinc or titanium-based sunscreens on your skin is a minor inconvenience compared to the significant risks like skin cancer.

Can Your Sunscreen Harm the Environment?

When it comes to the environment, the waters are quite muddled. Hawaii's decision to prohibit sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate starting in 2021 speaks to the damage these chemicals can inflict on coral reefs. But it doesn't stop there; other -ene and -ate compounds like octocrylene, homosalate, and octisalate are also under scrutiny for potentially harming marine life. A Consumer Reports article, considered widely impartial, suggests these chemicals could negatively impact various fish species. This same report points out that the term "reef-safe" isn't regulated, prompting consumers to scrutinize the long lists of complex ingredients, regardless of any "reef safe" labels.

Despite the uncertainties, we know that the -ide compounds, specifically titanium oxide and zinc oxide, haven't been implicated in environmental harm in the same way as some of their counterparts.

Ultimately, there is consensus that wearing some form of sunscreen is preferable to none, given the protection it provides. We've offered a selection of products that span the spectrum of these concerns, allowing you to make an informed choice based on your personal comfort with the potential risks.

The Best Sunscreens For Athletes: Sky and Sol Face and Body Sunscreen SPF 50

$9.90/ounce- $29.95, 3oz. Tin

Sky and Sol Face and Body Sunscreen SPF 50 offers a simple yet effective formula that stands out for its commitment to using straightforward, recognizable ingredients. This sunscreen harnesses the natural protective qualities of non-nano zinc oxide, ensuring broad-spectrum defense against both UVA and UVB rays without the risk of entering the bloodstream or affecting marine life. The blend of nourishing coconut oil, rich extra virgin olive oil, and moisturizing shea butter keeps the skin hydrated and supple, while sustainable beeswax provides a water-resistant barrier ideal for active lifestyles. Tallow adds to the cream’s smooth application, catering to those who appreciate skincare with a traditional touch, and the addition of rosemary extract not only delivers a subtle, refreshing scent but also acts as a natural preservative, enhancing the product’s stability. Ideal for the eco-conscious and health-aware individual, Sky and Sol's sunscreen maintains skin health and environmental responsibility with every application.


Endurance Shield SPF 45

$6/ounce-$24, 4oz. Tube

Despite this sunscreen incorporating octinoxate—a chemical with debated safety, offers a dual-action defense by pairing it with zinc oxide for a thorough protection. It's praised for its ease of application and luxurious feel, unlike typical sunscreens, and is fragranced to please. Tailored for the active lifestyle of triathletes, it promises enduring water resistance and broad-spectrum coverage, and it's thoughtfully packaged in a 2oz. size for reapplication convenience on the go. However, the inclusion of octinoxate may deter those cautious of chemical ingredients, and its higher price point and faster consumption rate could be seen as drawbacks. Moreover, those preferring purely mineral sunscreens might not find its ingredient mix ideal.


PLAY Everyday Lotion SPF 50 with Sunflower Extract

$6/ounce-$34, 5.5oz. Tube

PLAY Everyday Lotion SPF 50 with Sunflower Extract stands out for its high SPF protection and inclusion of nourishing sunflower extract. It is designed to cater to the daily needs of those exposed to the sun regularly, providing broad-spectrum defense with a blend of chemical filters including avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene. While it is celebrated for its moisturizing properties and robust protection, it's important to note that its chemical composition is not without controversy. Avobenzone, while effective, can degrade in the sun and may require more frequent reapplication. Homosalate and octisalate are known for their potential to accumulate in the body, raising concerns about long-term use. Octocrylene has been linked to environmental issues, such as coral bleaching. For those wary of chemical sunscreens, these ingredients might be seen as a significant downside, especially for users who are environmentally conscious or have sensitive skin that may react to chemical filters.

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