The Adventure

Sunscreen for mountain vacations

Posted by Topher Donahue on Tue, Apr 06, 2010

The worst sunburn I ever had was in Ecuador on a 5897-meter volcano called Cotopaxi.  It was cloudy all day, we never saw so much as a sliver of blue sky, we never even thought about putting on sunscreen, and yet the next day we were all so sunburned that some of us ended our trip early.  
Another time I was hanging out on a beach in Thailand and got sunburned in the shade from the sun’s reflection off the water.  Then there was the time I used some sunscreen that seemed to enhance the sun’s rays rather than reduce them.  
While I still play outside all the time, these encounters with the sun have turned me into a bit of a solarphobic.   Now I’m the guy in the big dorky hat with a swath of zink-based white sunscreen smeared on my face.  I’ve become a conesoir of sunscreen, and a lot of the time in the mountains I look pretty silly - but its worth it.  Here's a sunscreen-doused self-portrait from an expedition to Patagonia:

I look bad, but not as bad as the woman in this photo:

A really educational and comprehensive sunscreen investigation, including the best sunscreens, can be found here,  but my takeaway are these big factors:

  • Less than 10% of the sunscreens available do what they claim without the use of dangerous chemicals.
  • The US Food and Drug Administration has been working on sunscreen safety standards since 1978, but they are still not completed.
  • Research before buying.  Sunscreen marketing is not regulated, so companies can claim whatever their marketing department wants them to.  
  • Oxybenzone, a chemical used in many sunscreens appears to be on its way out as less sunscreens are using the once standard sunscreen ingredient.  It is a hormone disruptor that has negative side affects and is not recommended for children – although many sunscreens marketed to families still contain oxybenzone.
  • The big sunscreen brands like Coppertone, Neutrogena and Banana Boat are among the worst offenders for making claims that are not substantiated in tests!
  • Sunscreens that use zinc, for a physical block rather than a chemical block, and give the skin a ghoulish white look are actually the healthiest for your skin and for these reasons are best for children.
  • It is more important to reapply frequently than to use higher SPF rated product.

At the end of my research, I learned that mountaineers had it right all along.  The classic photo of the high-altitude climber is grizzled from weeks without shaving, topped with the worst bed head imaginable, and accented with white zinc sunscreen smeared around a delirious grin.  Before the recent sunscreen marketing craze of 50+ SPF ratings, the mountaineer’s wisdom was:

  • Use a sunscreen containing the least amount of chemicals with SPF of 15 to 30 for arms and legs.
  • Use a zinc oxide based sunscreen for the sensitive areas of the face.  When the white stuff was visibly smeared off, slather on some more.   
  • Use physical barriers like generous sun hats, wrap-around sunglasses, light-coloured clothing and bandanas instead of relying entirely on sunscreen.

Now it seems the regulators and researchers are coming to the same conclusions. 

Mountain guides view the sun as another hazard to be mitigated.  For this reason, especially around the highly reflective snowfields and glaciers, your guide on a summer adventure will make sure everyone is using sunscreen, sunglasses and sun hats. 

Tags: Adventure Travel, Family Travel, Product Information, CMH Summer Adventures