Swimming outdoors is one of the best things about summer – whether you’re swimming for fun or training and competing in events.
Looking after our skin and protecting it from harmful rays is crucial though – even more so when we’re in the water.
The cooling effect of the water can often make us think we are not burning, plus if getting in and out of water several times it can be easy to forget to reapply your sun lotion as the day goes on, so these are both things to be aware of.
NHS guidelines in the UK recommend a sun protection factor (SPF) of at least 30 to protect against UVB and at least 4-star UVA protection, so all products listed below adhere to these standards.
For swimming, you should also choose products which are suitable for use in the water and reapply frequently, especially if towelling dry or showering in between swims.
You should also consider whether your cream is harmful to aquatic life.
While nobody wants a film of sunscreen on the surface in the pool (and is one of the reasons you should shower before getting in the pool, then reapply sunscreen), it’s even more important to think about any impact on the environment when swimming in open water.
Caring for marine life
In 2018, Hawaii became the first nation to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, both harmful to marine life. An alternative is ‘mineral’ sunscreens, which use tiny mineral particles to block the sun’s rays, or non-mineral sunscreens which avoid these chemicals.
Note that you should be cautious around ‘reef-safe’ branding though, as there’s no approved protocol for using this label. Instead research the ingredients carefully or look for ‘Hawaii Act 104 Reef Compliant’ products, such as the range from Sun Bum.
We also want to protect other environments, so if swimming in lakes or rivers, always consider the products you are using on your body first – including sunscreen, wetsuit lube and any other hair or facial products.
Sunscreen routine tips
Once you’ve chosen your sunscreen, how can you use it as part of a routine to best protect yourself from the sun?
Here are a few things to bear in mind and some other tips that can help, though check out the NHS and Cancer Research UK websites for more guidance.
- Apply sunscreen to all exposed areas 30 minutes before – and then again just before – going outside, making sure to fully cover all exposed areas, including the edges of your swimsuit/shorts, which may move as you swim.
- Obviously covering up is the best form of defence when swimming – if in a wetsuit then that will cover most of your skin, but if it’s too warm for a wetsuit then you can add a long-sleeved swim top over your swimsuit/jammers.
- Make sure you get tricky-to-reach areas and cover parts that may be more exposed when you swim than usual (such as the soles of your feet) and don’t forget the sun’s races can bounce off the sides and bottom of pools etc to burn you.
- If swimming in a tri-suit, then make sure the fabric is thick enough to protect you from the sun’s rays. Some very lightweight suits use mesh fabric for breathability that will need sunscreen applying underneath them, especially on the arms and back.
- Keep sunscreen in transition if doing a long-distance triathlon and re-apply it. Better to take a little time to do that than to burn, especially if you are a more ‘relaxed’ pace athlete and likely to be out all day!
- Remember to protect your eyes too, by wearing a good set of swimming goggles with an appropriate tint/coating for the conditions you’re swimming in.
The best sunscreens for swimming in 2023
RIEMANN P20 Original SPF50 +Plus Spray
P20 has long been a staple in our kit bag and we’ve chosen the SPF50 version here for the best coverage (though lower SPF versions are also on sale from the same outlets).
Here in a 200ml spray size which offers easy application, Riemann say it offers high performance plus sweat resistance. The once-a-day UVA and UVB sun filter provides 10 hours of medium sun protection with factor 50+ and is still quoted as being 90% effective after swimming.
P20 is designed to stay on the skin longer than average sunscreens which makes it a good choice for swimmers and triathletes, but they do say that if rubbed off after towel drying or excessive sweating, for example, then re-apply and always follow the instructions carefully.
LifeJacket Skin Protection SPF 50+ Sun Gel
We love the LifeJacket brand, which offers a range of skincare all designed to help you care for and protect your face and body. This light gel offers SPF 50 and is easily absorbed and doesn’t sting or feel greasy.
When swimming the brand advise reapplying every 2-3 hours. Visit their website for plenty more products including moisturisers and other sun gels, plus advice on protecting your skin.
Sun Bum Original SPF 50 Sun Cream Spray
The sunscreen range from Sun Bum is reef safe, so one to look at if you’re planning to swim in the sea.
We picked out this SPF 50 spray here as one that is easy to reapply and offers good protection – though as with many brands, Sun Bum recommend reapplying at least every couple of hours when swimming.
Pelotan SPF 30 200ml spray
Pelotan tell us their SPF 30 spray is clear, quickly absorbed, lightweight and breathable. Designed for use by athletes, it has been laboratory tested and can last up to 8 hours at SPF 30, even with sweat and/or water.
Pelotan has devised it’s products for use in sports where the skin’s ability to breathe and sweat effectively is absolutely paramount.
Pelotan claim their unique formula binds with the skin without blocking pores, meaning your body can effectively regulate temperature and you can fully commit to your workout.
Ultra Sun Very High SPF50 Sports Spray
Specially developed for those who play sport, Ultra Sun Very High SPF50 Sports Spray Formula offers waterproof and speedy protection that is resistant to friction.
Featuring a clear spray formula, Ultra Sun Very High SPF50 Sports Spray Formula needs only one application to offer complete protection due to its broadband spectrum UVA and UVB filters.
Soltan Kids Once 3hr Waterplay Spray SPF50+ 200ml
It might be developed for kids, but with SPF50+ and water-resistant for up to 3 hours when swimming (or 8 hours when not wet) as well as being formulated for sensitive skin, it could be a good option for the whole family – plus it’s worth considering childrens’ more delicate skin when choosing sunscreen.
Aloha Sun Stick SPF 50+
The Aloha Sun Stick uses the mineral filter titanium dioxide, which is safe for both you and the reef.
This 94% natural mineral face sunscreen is intended for watersports such as surfing, kitesurfing, Stand Up Paddle (SUP) and sailing but would also be a good option for swimming if you want extra protection in areas that easily burn, such as nose, cheeks and lips.
The stick comes in various colours and in an eco-friendly paper tube.
Top image credit: Getty Images