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Top Sunscreens for Swimmers in 2024

Updated: Dec 16, 2023

Summer is here, and there’s nothing better than taking a refreshing dip in the pool or a swim in the ocean. But it's essential to remember one thing before you dive in: sun protection. As an experienced lifeguard, I've seen first-hand the damaging effects of the sun. This article aims to guide you towards the best sunscreens for swimmers and equip you with the knowledge to enjoy your swim while protecting your skin.

girl on beach

The Importance of Sunscreen for Swimmers

Swimmers face an increased risk of UV exposure due to both direct sunlight and reflection off the water. Prolonged exposure to the sun's harmful rays without proper protection can lead to skin damage, premature aging, and in severe cases, skin cancer. A good sunscreen is a swimmer’s best friend, and it’s essential for everyone, regardless of age or skin type.

Understanding Sunscreen: Basics and Terminology

Before we jump into product recommendations, let’s clarify some key sunscreen terms. Sun Protection Factor (SPF) indicates how well a sunscreen protects from UVB rays, which are primarily responsible for sunburn. Both physical and chemical sunscreens offer effective protection, but they work differently. Physical sunscreens (also known as mineral sunscreens) form a protective barrier on the skin's surface, reflecting UV rays. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, absorb UV rays before they can damage your skin.


The Relevance of UV Index for Swimmers

Understanding the UV index can also be crucial for swimmers. The UV index is a measure of the intensity of UV radiation at a particular time and place. It fluctuates throughout the day, with peaks generally occurring around midday. Keeping an eye on the UV index before you swim can help you determine the level of sun protection you need.

Water Resistance in Sunscreens

You’ll also see sunscreens labeled as water-resistant. But note, no sunscreen is 100% waterproof. Water resistance means that the sunscreen remains effective for a certain amount of time while swimming or sweating. Always reapply after you get out of the water to ensure continuous protection.

Broad-Spectrum Sunscreen

Lastly, for comprehensive sun protection, always opt for a broad-spectrum sunscreen. Broad-spectrum means it protects your skin from both UVA rays (which contribute to skin aging and persistent skin damage) and UVB rays.

sunscreen spf 50

A Closer Look at Sunscreen Ingredients

Different sunscreens contain different active ingredients. Some common ones include avobenzone and oxybenzone (in chemical sunscreens), and zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (in physical sunscreens). While these ingredients are effective for sun protection, some have raised concerns about the potential impacts of certain chemicals on our bodies and the environment. It’s a complex issue, and the best approach is to stay informed and choose the sunscreen that fits your needs and values.

swimmer putting on sunscreen

Sunscreen Recommendations

Choosing the right sunscreen can make all the difference in your swimming experience. Whether you're a competitive swimmer logging hours in the pool or a beach lover taking a leisurely ocean swim, there's a sunscreen that's right for you. We'll be examining options for adults, young swimmers, budget-friendly choices, and reef-friendly selections for environmentally conscious swimmers. Here are our top picks based on various categories:

1. Best Sunscreen for Adult Swimmers

La Roche-Posay's Anthelios Melt-In Sunscreen Milk is a top choice for adult swimmers. It offers broad-spectrum SPF 60 protection and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. Its fast-absorbing, velvety finish makes it comfortable for everyday use. Plus, it's formulated with antioxidants for enhanced protection.

2. Best Sunscreen for Young Swimmers/Kids

Neutrogena's Wet Skin Kids Sunscreen Stick is designed to apply and adhere directly to wet skin – no towel drying required. It's a game-changer for kids who can't wait to jump back into the water. Offering broad-spectrum SPF 70+ protection, it's also water-resistant for up to 80 minutes.

3. Top Budget-friendly Sunscreen for Swimmers

Coppertone Sport Continuous Sunscreen Spray offers solid protection without breaking the bank. It's water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and offers broad-spectrum SPF 50 protection. The continuous spray makes for easy application, even on hard-to-reach areas.

4. Best Reef-Safe Sunscreen for Environmentally Conscious Swimmers

For those mindful of the environmental impact of their sunscreen, Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen is a top pick. It's a physical sunscreen that uses zinc oxide to provide broad-spectrum SPF 30+ protection. It's free of oxybenzone and octinoxate, two ingredients known to harm coral reefs, making it a reef-friendly choice.

5. Best Sunscreen for Sensitive Skin

For swimmers with sensitive skin, Aveeno's Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion offers broad-spectrum SPF 50 protection. It's a mineral sunscreen that uses zinc oxide for protection, which is less likely to irritate sensitive skin. Plus, it's free of fragrance, parabens, and phthalates.

6. Best Water-Resistant Sunscreen

Neutrogena offers notable water resistance, maintaining SPF protection for up to 80 minutes in the water. With an SPF of 70, it provides broad-spectrum coverage, making it an ideal pick for swimmers looking for enduring water-resistant protection.

Each of these sunscreens has unique attributes that make them stand out in their category. However, the best sunscreen is the one that you will use consistently. Choose a sunscreen that suits your needs and make it a non-negotiable part of your swim routine.

How to Apply Sunscreen Properly

Achieving adequate sun protection isn't just about choosing the right sunscreen—it's also about using it properly. Without correct application, even the most high-quality, top-rated sunscreen won't provide the protection it's capable of, leaving your skin vulnerable to harmful UV rays.

Start by applying your sunscreen at least 15 minutes before you plan to swim or be in the sun. This window allows the sunscreen to absorb into your skin and create an effective shield against UV rays. Be generous with your application; most adults need about one ounce of sunscreen, roughly the amount that can fit in a shot glass, to cover all exposed skin. Under-application can significantly decrease the protection factor.

Ensure you cover all exposed areas of your skin, not just the obvious ones. Pay close attention to often overlooked areas such as the tops of your ears, the back of your neck, and the backs of your hands and legs. These areas are just as susceptible to sun damage as the rest of your body.

Don't forget about your face, too. Apply sunscreen to your face separately, being careful to cover your forehead, nose, and under your chin, but avoid getting it into your eyes. If you're worried about sunscreen stinging your eyes, look for brands that offer tear-free formulas.

Remember, no sunscreen is truly waterproof, only water-resistant, so you'll need to reapply it every two hours, or immediately after swimming or excessive sweating, for continuous protection. Even if you're only taking a quick dip or sitting in the shade, don't underestimate the reflective power of water and sand.

The Role of Antioxidants in Sun Protection

Sun protection extends beyond just blocking or absorbing UV rays. The latest advancements in sun care science have highlighted the role of antioxidants in enhancing your overall sun protection strategy. But what makes antioxidants such a key player in the sun protection game?

Antioxidants are substances that neutralize free radicals—unstable molecules that can damage cells and contribute to skin aging and diseases, including skin cancer. These free radicals are not only produced in the body as a result of normal cellular processes but can also be induced by external factors such as pollution, radiation, and crucially, UV exposure from the sun.

In the context of sun protection, adding antioxidants to sunscreens offers a two-fold benefit. First, they help to neutralize the harmful free radicals produced by UV radiation before they can cause damage. Second, they can help repair existing damage by promoting new cell growth and reducing inflammation.

Several sunscreen brands have started to incorporate potent antioxidants like Vitamin E, green tea extract, or Vitamin C into their formulas. Vitamin E is particularly effective, as it absorbs UVB light—the type of UV radiation most responsible for sunburn and directly damages the DNA in skin cells. Green tea extract, on the other hand, contains compounds known as catechins, which are renowned for their anti-inflammatory, anticancer, and antioxidant properties.

Other Essential Sun Protection Measures for Swimmers

Remember, sunscreen is just one tool in your sun-protection arsenal. Always reapply sunscreen after swimming and every two hours during prolonged sun exposure. Consider wearing sun-protective clothing, like rash guards or swim shirts, for added protection. And try to avoid swimming during peak UV intensity times, typically between 10 AM and 4 PM.

Myths and Misconceptions about Sunscreens

Understanding sun protection is crucial for maintaining healthy skin. However, there are numerous myths and misconceptions circulating about sunscreens and sun protection that can lead to harmful practices. In this section, let's take a moment to debunk a few of these common misunderstandings.

Perhaps one of the most prevalent myths is the belief that having a base tan protects you from sun damage. The fact is, a tan is essentially a sign of skin damage itself. When your skin darkens due to sun exposure, it's your body's way of trying to protect itself from further damage.

A base tan only provides an SPF of about 3, far less than the minimum recommended SPF of 30. Therefore, whether you are fair-skinned or have a darker complexion, you need sunscreen to protect your skin from harmful UV radiation.

Another common misconception is that sunscreen isn't necessary on overcast or cooler days. However, up to 80% of the sun's UV rays can penetrate clouds. So even if the sky is overcast or the weather is cooler, it's essential to apply sunscreen.

The risks associated with UV exposure, such as premature skin aging and skin cancer, can occur irrespective of the weather or temperature.


Sun protection is non-negotiable for swimmers. Regular application of a good sunscreen, coupled with other sun-safe practices, can ensure that you enjoy your swim without worrying about sun damage.

So make sunscreen an essential part of your swim routine. After all, a good swimmer is not just someone who swims fast, but someone who also knows how to protect their skin. Dive in, the water's fine, and with the right sunscreen, your skin will be too.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes a sunscreen suitable for swimmers?

A suitable sunscreen for swimmers should offer broad-spectrum protection (protecting against both UVA and UVB rays), have a high SPF (preferably 30 or above), and be water-resistant. The term "water-resistant" means that the SPF is maintained for a certain amount of time while swimming or sweating. Sunscreens labeled as water-resistant can resist water for either 40 or 80 minutes, as indicated on the product.

Is it necessary to reapply sunscreen even if it's labeled as water-resistant?

Yes, reapplication is vital. The FDA mandates that sunscreens labeled as water-resistant must maintain their initial SPF level after 40 or 80 minutes of water exposure. However, it is recommended to reapply sunscreen every two hours or immediately after swimming, towel drying, or excessive sweating for adequate protection.

Are there sunscreens safe for sensitive skin or those with skin conditions?

Absolutely. If you have sensitive skin or a skin condition, mineral or physical sunscreens are often the best choice. They use active mineral ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which sit on top of the skin and deflect the sun's rays. These sunscreens are less likely to cause skin irritation. Examples include the Blue Lizard Sensitive Sunscreen and Aveeno's Sensitive Skin Sunscreen Lotion.

How much sunscreen should I apply before swimming?

A good rule of thumb is to use enough sunscreen to fill a shot glass (about an ounce) to cover all exposed areas of the body. Remember to apply it to often-forgotten areas such as the tops of feet, the back of the neck, and the back of the ears.

Are there specific sunscreens for face and body?

Yes, there are sunscreens specifically formulated for the face and body. Facial sunscreens are designed to be lighter and less greasy, making them more comfortable to wear on your face. They can also include beneficial skincare ingredients and cater to specific skin types. However, in a pinch, you can use body sunscreen on your face and vice versa.

What does "reef-safe" mean when it comes to sunscreen?

"Reef-safe" is a term that has emerged in response to research suggesting that some chemical sunscreen ingredients, like oxybenzone and octinoxate, can harm coral reefs. While there is no regulated definition for this term, "reef-safe" sunscreens typically do not contain these harmful chemicals. The Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen is an example of a reef-safe product.


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Steve Grella is a father of two young boys. He is a Police Detective, EMT, lifeguard trainer and swim instructor, who brings over 20 years of knowledge and expertise in safety and service. He has dedicated his life to educating students in vital lifesaving training and now strives to provide expert resources to arm you with the skills and training to one day save a life if called upon.

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