When I was traveling in SE Asia, I would often marvel at the amount of people who wore tank tops and shorts…with no sunscreen. Can I get an amen to all fellow pale people out there that would be burnt to a crisp doing this?
There is no way I could ever do that. But I also love going outside.
After several bad sunburns where the sunscreen washed off, was sweated off, or I simply forgot to put it on, I eventually discovered this VERY IMPORTANT FACT: there is no better sun protection than sun clothing. Sun clothing is your friend. It will never abandon you when you are wet. It will not abandon you when you are sweaty. It may even keep you cooler than that tank top. It’s also possible that it will look amazing.
Fortunately, there are styles for everybody. They make take up more room in your tropical backpack, but they are so very worth it! Plus they will save you money in sunscreen bills in the long run. Sun protective clothing also has the added benefit of being modest for conservative countries and temples – no need to bring coverups!
Pro tip: you’ll still need sunscreen for your face and hands, so fill up a 3 oz Goob Tube with your favorite sunscreen to bring along. It lasts a pretty long time if you use it on a small area!
Of course, the best sun tip is to take a leaf out of the book of those who live in hot areas like the Spanish and Italians: don’t go outside in the middle of the day! It’s hot, it’s crowded, and it’s exhausting. Try going out early in the morning or later in the evening – there are less crowds, it’s less hot, and you can snap some amazing golden hour photos!
So. How about that sun gear?
Protect your ears, also known as cancer flaps, with a wide-brimmed hat. The style is of course up to you, but it’s hard to beat the classics: I have a black Brixton Tiller hat. Prior to this, I had the Dorfman Pacific All Season Crushable Hat (as seen in the photo above), which is basically a great-looking cowboy hat. For a great-looking fedora, try the Brixton Messer hat. For something in between, try the Brixton Field hat. (Not sponsored, just love their hats. 😀)
I prefer wool as it sheds water like a champ (you can wear your hat in the rain too!) and is a natural material.
Straw hats are also great as they are cooler, but they are not crushable, so once they rip, they are toast.
Synthetic hats are very packable, but nice ones are hard to find. The best-looking, most practical one (with a great name!) is the North Face Shadowcaster hat.
Your eyes need protection too! Make sure to get some with UV protection and large dark lenses. I love mine from Smith (the brown glasses in nearly all my photos) since they cover every part of my eye -looking down, up, and to the side, which makes them suitable for snow (here’s a similar pair). Smith also has a great warranty on their glasses and many of them have interchangeable lenses.
If you’ve ever watched old movies, you’ve probably noticed that many people wore full sun coverage outfits in the sun, and the ladies even wore gloves. Beyond being dainty, these gloves have a practical purpose – wearing gloves in the sun will keep your hand skin looking much younger.
I wasn’t interested in gloves until I burned my hand in a cooking accident. While the scar on my poor pinkie healed, I read that keeping it out of the sun would keep it from permanently discoloring, so I bought a pair of cheap gloves and wore them when I went outside. It seems to have worked, since you can’t tell I burned myself!
I bought these cheap gloves, but Coolibar makes some nicer ones if you want something that will last longer. They don’t have to be white, but white will keep your hands cooler. And the you can pretend to be a fancy lady and scoff at everything. 😀
Cooling bandana (optional):
If it’s really hot out, one great option to keep your cool (yes, I just made that joke) is the humble bandana dipped in water. It makes a GIGANTIC difference. Just make sure to bring along enough water to re-wet it every so often.
Options for this are a regular bandana (I’ve had mine for 8 years) or a UV protective Buff if you want to go the tube route. This will offer additional sun protection for your neck and allow you to wear less sunscreen! Yay!
Long-sleeved sun shirt
You know what’s cooler than a tank top in full sunlight? A breezy, long-sleeved shirt. Just ask anyone living in really hot countries like Saudi Arabia…where they wear long breezy garments and are probably laughing their asses off at the silly burnt American lobsters.
Outdoor clothing companies are thankfully finally beginning to realize that we want to be protected from the sun, but we also want to look nice. Goodbye boxy sun shirts!
There are a couple different styles and they tend to fall in the collard shirt and non-collared shirt categories. My absolute favorite, which is breezy, comes in a million colors and is a non-collared shirt is the long sleeve shirt by Coolibar. Coolibar only makes sun protective clothing, so they are worth checking out for all of your sun clothing needs if you like their styles.
The most common sun protective shirt however, is the collard shirt, and with good reason: the seam across the back is opened along many of them and stitched with mesh to allow air flow. Plus, they are collared shirts, which can make nearly anything look nice. The best versions are slightly tapered at the waist for us ladies so they actually look nice. I regularly wear mine to work.
Another nice feature of collared shirts? Many have hidden pockets – perfect for carrying a passport, wallet, etc.
Your favorite shirt will of course depend on your style and body shape (these aren’t as stretchy as the Coolibar shirts) but here is my favorite to get you started:
Pants or bottoms
Chances are you are going to be wearing pants while traveling, due to their amount of pockets and ease of wear. We have probably all seen those travel pants with the zip off bottoms and many have probably been horrified by them. However, if you’re pale and attempting to not get sunburned, the shorts portion isn’t very practical to wear unless you’re inside. So we will skip the zip offs.
If you want a cool and breezy convertible pant that looks nice, has enough practical pockets without being a cargo pant, and rolls up to become capris, look no further than the Prana Halle pant. They are the. Best. Pants. EVER. Currently, they are my only pair of pants. They are so very comfortable, they are stretchy, tough, and even have a draw string inside so you don’t have to wear a belt if the buttons don’t make the waist tight enough. They even come in shorter lengths for those of us with short legs. And they come in nice colors like black, gray, and tan. They seem to be vanity sized, so size one down from your normal pant size. They are a bit expensive but worth every penny!
Similar pants that I used to own are the North Face Horizon Tempest Pants. They are essentially the same pants without the stretch. I brought them to Thailand and they stayed wonderfully cool and light. I even swam in them!
If you’re heading to SE Asia, you’ll find genie pants available there at every market. While I initially scoffed at them, I eventually realized that they are genius: they are light and breezy, made of a flowing light cotton, and completely cover your legs. You can pick some up there for about $7 or find a local store that imports them. If you’re worried about fashion there, don’t be – no one else is!
Another option is a long breezy cotton maxi skirt (or dress, covered on top with a sun shirt on top). These can be found nearly anywhere, so bring along your favorite!
Unfortunately for us, there isn’t really a sun shirt equivalent in footwear. The best option is to either wear some light shoes with lots of breathable mesh, wear Keen Newport sandals (they provide a lot of coverage and are pictured above), or wear sandals and lots of sunscreen. Another option for light shoes is to pick up some swim shoes. They are essentially all mesh on top and are meant to protect your feet from reefs when swimming (they have a regular shoe bottom and come in a gazillion colors!). They are usually for sale for less than $20 at your destination in drug stores and grocery stores. For foreign destinations, it might be best to purchase some locally before you go.
If you have gotten to this section and are super stoked to find a way to show off your ripped body in a bikini, I have some bad news. There is no bikini on earth that’s going to do that and prevent a total body sunburn. However, there are plenty of non-grandma swimming options here!
First, buy whoever kind of swimsuit that makes you feel awesome. You’ll want it for indoor pools.
Second, we are going to layer. You can protect your entire torso and still look amazing (especially if you’re ripped – wet material will cling to you!) with a fashionable rash guard. It’s essentially a stretchy shirt that goes over your swimsuit.
These are another area that are starting to get more fashionable, so there are many options to choose from. Just remember to get one that has an SPF rating.
Pro packing tip: get a rash guard that looks like a regular shirt, i.e. one that doesn’t say RIP CURL in giant letters across the chest. That way you have an extra shirt already packed for your when aren’t swimming! They are also great for running in on cooler days or as an extra layer! Sneaky.
I have this one from Coolibar. Everyone thinks it’s a nice sweater and I wear it all the time. It’s surprisingly warm in the winter. (The warmth is actually a good thing, because the whole shirt will stay wet when you are swimming and if the water temperature isn’t bath water, you can get cold fast.) The only downside to this shirt is that it doesn’t pack very small and is susceptible to snagging on Velcro.
If you’re a tiny lady, you can even get one with a shark on it!
Here are some others I like:
This is another individual preference thing, because there are a few options:
1) Swim tights. You could just use athletic leggings for this if you don’t want to buy new ones.
2) Swim tights with skirt. Super cute and you can totally wear these outside of swimming!
3) Board shorts. Available in surf shops by surf brands, these usually have a handy pocket in the back for your keys. Make sure to get the longest can find and apply sunscreen to your lower legs.
Now now go forth…and don’t get burned!