Tips to avoid getting sunburned at the beach

Crescent Beach - photo by Julie Dodd

Low tide at Crescent Beach. The white sand and the water can reflect the sun’s ray and give you a sunburn even if you are wearing a hat.

I recently drove to Dunedin, Florida, to meet two of my friends from Kentucky who were vacationing in the Clearwater area. We were having lunch before I took them to explore Honeymoon Island State Park.

As we ate our lunch in air conditioning, sipping iced drinks, one of them asked: “What is it that you enjoy about living in Florida?”

As we talked, I realized that the question really was: “How do you handle the Florida heat in the summer?”

Honeymoon Island State Park - photo by Julie Dodd

Honeymoon Island State Park provides the perfect setting for sitting on the beach or floating in the water. The breeze on the beach and taking a dip in the water can make you less aware of how hot it actually is.

They were on Day 2 of a week-long Florida vacation in June and already were feeling a little cooked from a long day at the beach.

Let me make a few suggestions for enjoying time on a Florida beach without getting overwhelmed by the sun and heat.

As I make these suggestions, I’ll note that even those of us who live in Florida can be overwhelmed by the sun. Sometimes you take precautions and still end up sunburned or having that upset stomach or light-headed feeling of having too much sun or heat.

Protect your skin

Sun protection is the #1 issue for having a good day at the beach – both for how you’ll feel at the end of the day and what the results are for your skin, perhaps years down the road.

For many going to the beach, getting a tan is a primary goal. But too much sun can lead to getting sunburned – overexposure to UV (ultra violet) rays from the sun. If you get sunburned at the beginning of your vacation, that can not only be uncomfortable but can require you to change your plans – perhaps not even being able to go to the beach for a day or two.

The amount of sun protection you need is affected by your skin tone. Be sure to make your own informed decisions and don’t just do what your friend or family members are doing. They may be more sun-tolerant skin than you are. Your have several strategies for skin protection.


A tour of the sunscreen section of a drugstore shows the range of choices – from sun enhancers that promote tanning to a range of sunblock lotions and sprays that provide various levels of UV protection.

Your skin tone and the time of day you are on the beach (or at the pool) are factors affecting what is the best sunscreen for you. The sun is most intense from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

The American Academy of Dermatolgy provides a helpful list of tips for using sunscreen. Those tips include:

  • Apply sunscreen 15 minutes before you go outdoors.
  • Select a sunscreen that has SPF of 30 or higher and is water resistent.
  • Reapply sunscreen every two hours.

And sometimes we’re missing important areas when applying sunblock, such as around the eyes and eyelids.  The researchers who conducted a study of how people apply sunblock also advised wearing sunglasses to help protect the skin around the eyes.

Another factor for those who get sunburned is that they often are exposing areas that typically aren’t in the sun, such as midrifs, chests and the tops of feet.

Wear a hat

A hat with a brim is a good way of helping protect your face and head. Those with thinning hair or with shaved heads risk having the top of their heads getting sunburned. Ears are another sunburn target – which means having a hat with a brim rather than just a cap for those who don’t have hair that covers the ears. You can purchase hats with UPF protection.

Keep in mind that both the water and the sand are reflective. So even if you wear a hat as you wade in the ocean or walk on the beach, your face can be getting the sun’s rays.

Wear protective clothing

UPF 50 label

Some clothing is designed with UFP protection. Be sure to check the label.

Sometimes the best way to protect your skin for a day at the beach is to wear more than a swimsuit.

I first learned that wearing long sleeves can actually feel cooler when the newspaper I worked for sent me to cover a week-long cycling tour. Every day I was on the road cycling with the riders and then writing about the cyclists and the day’s events. We were riding from 8 a.m. until about 4 p.m. By the third day of the tour, my arms were sunburned, even though I had been applying sunscreen.

I was advised to wear a light colored long-sleeved shirt. I imagined that I was going to be much hotter wearing a long-sleeved shirt than I had been wearing a tank top. But having my sunburned arms covered made me cooler than having my arms in the sun and prevented my arms from getting more sunburned.

Many companies that make outdoor products — like Lands’ End, LL Bean and Title Nine — now are marketing swim tees and swim tights. The clothing has UPF protection. I’ve added to my protective clothing with long-sleeve nylon blouses with UPF protection and now “rash swim tees.”

beach umbrella - photo by Julie Dodd

This photo of Crescent Beach was taken at 7 p.m., showing how sunny it can be even later in the day. This beach umbrella, although festive, is not made of a material to provide sun protection.

Protective umbrellas and tents

Beach umbrellas and tents can make a big difference in your comfort level on the beach by providing shade. But not all umbrellas and tents provide real sun protection. Many beach umbrellas (like the one in the photo) provide little real protection.

Consider purchasing an umbrella with a special lining to help block the sun. Those umbrellas cost more but make a real difference in the amount of shade the umbrella provides.

Stay hydrated

Staying hydrated is a key part in how you’re going to feel during your day on the beach. If you’re running, hiking or playing beach volleyball, you’re probably going to be aware that you need to be drinking because you’ll be sweating. But sitting on the beach or at the pool, you may not be aware that you are sweating because you’re going in the water or because of the breeze.

You want to drink water or other non-alcholic and non-caffeinated drinks. Alcohol and caffeinated beverages cause you to go the bathroom more frequently, which makes you more dehydrated.

If you’re going for a long walk on the beach, take a bottle of water with you. A number of hydration approaches are available for those who exercise, including bottles with a strap to help with gripping and hydration systems (like CamelBak).

Then remind yourself to drink regularly — or use an activity monitoring system, like a Fitbit, to remind you. If you wait to start drinking until you are really thirsty, you’re already on the way to being dehydrated.

Pace yourself – and be open to modifying your plans

When you are on vacation or only have one day at the beach, you can be tempted to get as much sun as possible. But staying on the beach even when you know you’re getting sunburned can lead to you getting heat stroke or sun poisoning and possibly blistering and peeling .

If you feel dizzy or nauseaous or develop chills or a fever, it’s time to get out of the sun. Get into air conditioning, take a cool shower, and drink lots of fluids.

If you’re with others at the beach or pool, be aware if someone is getting sunburned, and ask your beach companions to check on you. Sometimes you may not be aware that you’re getting sunburned until it’s too late. And don’t pressure others to stay on the beach if they feel like they’ve had enough sun or heat for the day.

All of this advice is especially important if you have small children at the beach.

A day at the beach can be a great way to reconnect with nature, to have fun with family and friends, and to relax. But you don’t want to end up with a painful sunburn at the end of the beach vacation or with sun-damaged skin over the years.

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