Burning up the day: chasing shadows on the open sea

Sun safety is an extremely important topic for all boaters. Arguably nothing beats spending a sunny day on the boat. In addition to wrinkles, sunspots and an overall “leathery” appearance—overexposure to ultraviolet rays can also result in skin cancer.

Unfortunately, that UV assault is only intensified by the boating environment because UV rays not only come at you from above but are also reflected by the water and all those gleaming surfaces aboard your boat. The good news? With the proper sunscreen and sun-safety techniques, you can dramatically lessen the damage and still thoroughly enjoy a day on the water.

  • Apply sunscreen to any exposed skin.
  • Remember to reapply every two hours, following a swim or when sweating excessively because protection will diminish over time.
  • As for sprays versus lotions versus rub-on sticks, choose the option that works best for you and will encourage you to reapply as directed.
  • Don’t forget often-neglected spots such as your lips, the part in your hair, tops of the ears and feet, and backs of the legs. Sunscreen sprays often work best for those with thinning hair. Choose a lip balm with at least SPF 15.
  • For best results, plan your initial sunscreen application for 15 to 30 minutes before you go out into the sun to allow the sunscreen to properly absorb into the skin. Shoot for a portion that could fill a shot glass to cover the average adult body.

Protect your skin

Forget “tanning” oils or lotions that promised to bronze your skin. Today’s sun products are designed around protection, limiting the number of UV rays that make it to your skin.

The harmful rays of the sun are divided into two types: UVA and UVB.

UVB was long thought to do the most harm because it is the type of UV radiation responsible for both the irritating pain and redness of sunburn as well as the longer-term effect of skin cancer. UVA, however, has also proven to be harmful. Deep-penetrating UVA rays are responsible for aging the skin, over time resulting in the wrinkled, leathery, sun-spotted appearance that typified mariners of old.

Modern, “broad spectrum” sunscreens protect against both types of radiation. The American Academy of Dermatology recommends looking for a broad-spectrum sunscreen that is both water-resistant and features a “sun protection factor” of at least 30 or higher. These sunscreens can be physical or chemical in type. 

Physical sunscreens—look for the active ingredients zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide—act as a barrier atop your skin and are best for sensitive skin but sometimes leave a whitish residue. Chemical sunscreens (active ingredients including oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate) absorb the sun’s rays and typically rub into the skin without visible residue but have the potential to irritate the skin. Sunscreens can protect you by a physical or chemical barrier. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are small particles that form a physical barrier that scatters damaging UV rays away from your skin. Chemical sunscreens including ones that contain oxybenzone, absorb UV rays, preventing them from penetrating the skin. You want to avoid products that contain oxybenzone, and look for ones that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (micro, not nanoparticles), as these are less toxic to your health and the environment. 

Protect Your Eyes

  • It’s not just your skin that can get damaged by UV rays; your eyes are also at risk. Sunglasses are the key here. Make sure to find a pair that blocks 99-100% of UVA and UVB rays, or that offer UV absorption of up to 400nm. Besides protecting your eyes from UV damage, they can also help you improve visibility and comfort on the water by reducing light intensity and filtering out glare. Polarized lenses are also a good choice for boaters because they dramatically reduce glare off the water.

Install A Sun-Shade

When you’re out for hours at a time on your boat, it’s important to take breaks out of the sun and seek shade. For some boats, you have the choice of retreating inside your boat for a shady break. Depending on your vessel, you could also consider installing sun shades directly on your boat. These are great since you’ll still be able to enjoy the nice breeze while staying protected from the sun’s rays. There are also boat umbrellas that are designed specifically for boating that can offer UV protection. Remember the UV rays reflect from the surface of the water. So, even if you are under shade, still you need to use other sailing sun protection methods as well.

In addition to sunscreen, sun protective clothing is becoming increasingly popular, particularly in the boating market. A category that includes shirts, pants, swimwear, broad-brimmed hats, neck and face gaiters, and even arm sleeves, sun-protection clothing is rated based on its “ultraviolet protection factor.” Numbers correspond to how much of the sun’s UV radiation is blocked by the fabric. Example? A UPF 50 shirt allows only 1/50 of UVA and UVB rays to pass through to the skin.

  • To avoid feeling clammy, look for UPF clothing that breathes, wicks moisture away and has a comfortable, loose fit.
  • Flatlock stitching improves comfort, lying flat against the skin and reducing chafing.

Along with appropriate boating gear, remember these tips while sailing:

  • You should expose your skin to the sun progressively, and never suddenly over-expose.
  • Stay in the shade, especially between 10 and 4
  • Avoid tanning and UV tanning bed
  • Do not burn
  • Cover up with clothing, including a hat and good sunglasses that block UV rays
  • Use sunscreen with an SPF of 15 or higher every day. The sunscreen should block both UVA and UVB. While sailing or doing watersports, use a water-resistant sunscreen that is SPF of 30 or higher and reapply often; or wear a UV blocking skinsuit.
  • Keep newborn babies out of the sun and use sunscreen on babies over 6 months old
  • Keep an eye on your skin, especially any moles or spots.
  • Get a professional skin exam once a year

If you do happen to get burnt while sailing, there are few things you can do to treat sunburn:

  • Immediately cool it down and get out of the sun. Carry on cooling the burn with cold compresses, without putting ice directly on the skin.
  • Put moisturizing cream, that is not petroleum or oil-based, on while your skin is still damp
  • Decrease Inflammation by taking anti-inflammatory medicine. Aloe Vera cream is a good product to pack on a sailing vacation, as it can soothe mild burns.
  • Stay out of the sun
  • Keep hydrated. Burns draw fluid away from the rest of your body to the skin’s surface.
  • See a doctor if – you have bad blistering over a large part of your body, you have a fever, or you become confused.

No single method of sun defense can protect you perfectly, though. The best path to beautiful, healthy skin is to adopt as many of these steps of protection as possible into your lifestyle, and make them daily habits everywhere you go, all year long.


  1. https://www.discoverboating.com/resources/sun-safety-for-boaters
  2. https://qsun.co/sailing-sun-protection/
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