Two keys to a fun day outdoors: preventing sunburn and keeping bugs from biting. Our advice in a nutshell:

Sun and Bug Protection

  • Sun: Use a UVA/UVB-blocking sunscreen (SPF 30 or higher) and/or UPF-rated sun-protection clothing.
  • Bugs: Chemical repellents (DEET or picaridin) and/or permethrin-treated clothing give you the best protection; natural repellents can be effective, too.

For tips on choosing and properly using these products, read on.

Sunscreen

How to Use

  • All adults and kids older than 6 months should use sunscreen. Children younger than 6 months should be shielded from prolonged sun exposure.
  • Adult sunscreens are fine for kids. Kid-targeted sunscreens add fragrances or colors that may boost their appeal to kids, but the formulas vary little if at all.
  • Use SPF 30 sunscreen on exposed skin. SPF 15 is OK if you're not active (sweating), but even then SPF 30 is preferred. Choose UPF 50 for travel at high elevations (9,000+ feet), close to the poles or near the equator.
  • Apply generously. Common mistake: spreading sunscreen too thinly. Use 1 oz. (enough to fill a shot glass) per application. Don't hesitate to glop it on.
  • Be thorough. Don't forget ears, backs of hands, behind the knees, tops of feet (when wearing sandals).
  • Apply in advance; reapply regularly. Medical types advise smearing on sunscreen 30 minutes before sun exposure begins. They recommend reapplying it every 2 hours and after exposure to water.
  • Keep it off clothing. Sunscreens can stain fabrics.

Understanding Ultraviolet (UV) Rays

UVA/UVB Sunscreen

Sunlight involves a wide spectrum of light, including invisible ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) rays. Both have the potential to cause skin cancer.

  • UVA = Ages the skin, causing wrinkling. UVA rays can pass through glass and affect skin during any daylight hour.
  • UVB = Burns the skin, causing redness and discomfort. UVB rays cannot pass through glass. They affect skin most between 10am and 4 pm.

Interpreting Product Labels

An SPF rating only identifies how well a sunscreen protects skin from UVB (burning) rays. No rating system currently exists for UVA rays.

Use sunscreens effective against both UVA and UVB, sometimes called broad-spectrum sunscreen. REI sells only broad-spectrum sunscreens.

Not sure? See the REI Expert Advice article on How to Choose and Use Sunscreens for a list of ingredients used in UVA-blocking sunscreens.

Shop REI’s selection of sunscreen.

Clothing and Shade

  • Clothing works. Clothing effectively shields skin from sunlight's ultraviolet (UV) rays. Some lightweight clothing uses special weaves, dyes or fibers to handle that job and features a UPF rating (Ultraviolet Protection Factor).
  • Seek shade during high sun intensity. The sun's rays are most intense between 10am and 4pm. It's the same at high elevation, near the equator or at the poles. Cover up or, if shade is available, use it.

Shop REI’s selection of sun-protection clothing.

Insect Repellents

DEET-Based Insect Repellent

The single best advice for using repellents: Read and follow manufacturer instructions on product labels.

DEET

  • DEET-based repellents are safe, time-proven performers. DEET has been in public use since 1957. Our skin absorbs it but eliminates it through urine.
  • DEET is a chemical that has been and the subject of numerous studies. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) lists it first among its recommended active ingredients.
  • It’s OK for kids. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, DEET is suitable for children at least 2 months old in concentrations of up to 30% when used according to directions on product labels.
  • Most effective formulations: Controlled-release formulas (often creamy lotions) with 30% or higher concentrations of DEET; high concentrations (up to 100%) of pure DEET. The CDC considers 50% a sufficient concentration, though that ups the ratio of alcohol (a potential skin irritant) used in the mix.
  • Pros: The longest-lasting ingredient now available.
  • Cons: Can adversely affect fabrics, leather, plastics, auto paint and other surfaces; distinctive odor; marginally effective against flies.

Picaridin

  • First used in Europe in 1998 and in the U.S. in 2005. Considered safe, though more studies are required before high concentrations of this chemical are produced.
  • OK for kids. To REI's knowledge, no advocacy group opposes the use of picaridin on children.
  • Most effective formulations: A 20% concentration of picaridin.
  • Pros: More agreeable odor; does not adversely affect fabrics or painted surfaces; more effective against flies than DEET.
  • Cons: Not as long-lasting as high concentrations of DEET.

Natural Active Ingredients

  • Examples: Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus, Citronella.
  • Usually OK for kids, particularly for those who resist DEET due to its odor. Exception: Oil of Lemon Eucalyptus should not be used on children 3 or younger; it may irritate sensitive skin.
  • Pros: Natural, usually nicer smelling, no impact on fabrics or surfaces.
  • Cons: Duration of effectiveness is unpredictable; often must be reapplied every 2 hours.

Shop REI’s selection of insect repellents.

Tips

  • When using both sunscreen and repellent, apply sunscreen first (ideally 30 minutes before stepping outside), then add repellent.
  • Do not apply on cuts, wounds or irritated skin.
  • Do not apply under clothing. Doing so conceals the barrier that makes repellent on bare skin effective.

Permethrin-treated Clothing

  • Clothing treated with a chemical known as permethrin (sometimes marketed as Permanone) is effective against 50 insect types, including ticks.
  • Some clothing (Ex Officio's Insect Shield, Columbia's Bug Shield) comes with a built-in treatment. Permethrin sprays are available for treating existing clothing.
  • Permethrin, an insecticide, has been used in the U.S. since 1979 and is considered safe. It does not stain clothing and rarely irritates skin. It does not interfere with the wicking properties of technical clothing.
  • Self-treated clothing usually must be retreated every 42 days to maintain optimal performance and can remain effective though 6 washings. Both Insect Shield and Bug Shield, which melt permethrin into clothing fibers, claim effectiveness through up to 70 washings.
  • International travelers: Permethrin is an effective treatment for bed netting. Headnets, too, for backpackers.

Best defense when bugs are bad:

  • Combine a long-duration repellent (a controlled-release, DEET-based formula is a savvy choice) with permethrin-treated clothing, and have a headnet handy.

Shop REI’s selection of bug-protection clothing or mosquito net clothing.