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Skin tones

This street art the author photographed in Nashville this summer does a great job of showing several different Fitzpatrick Skin Types. Hair color, eye color, and skin color can all factor in. Know yours.


Maybe 30.

That’s about how many minutes my untanned skin can last in the sun before it begins to burn.

That’s fitting because I’m a Type 2 or Type 3.

I’m referring to the Fitzpatrick scale, a scale derived to determine a person’s melanin levels, proneness to burning when exposed to ultraviolet (UV) light and likelihood of pigmentation alteration when exposed to light or certain chemicals.

The higher the number (1 through 6), typically the darker your skin and the more resistant your skin is to sunburn. Likewise, the higher the number, the more likely it is to readily darken or change color when exposed to UV light or certain chemicals.

Over the summer, I got to spend six weeks traveling the country, fishing, writing, and baking in the sun. It was glorious, and I’ve already begun writing a book about it.

I fished 45-of-47 days, spending as long as 16 hours per day in the heat of the sun in the 18 states I fished.

Miraculously, apart from a small sliver of my shoulder I missed during my sunscreen application early in the trip and the first time I went barefoot all day, I made it through the summer without any significant sunburns.

“How is this possible?” you may be wondering.

After all, I’m pretty white. Not “Trader Joe’s is my favorite brand of ———_ white,” or “I live in Portland white,” but still pretty white.

I’m “Sponsored by a sunscreen brand white,” in fact.

Reef Safe Suncare

This summer, during my travels, I joined the Pro Staff of Reef Safe Suncare, and it changed my life. If we’re being honest, it probably extended it, too.

Reef Safe Suncare was the first truly non-toxic, environmentally friendly sunscreen on the market, a product so safe that it has almost no impact whatsoever on marine life — a stark contrast to many commercial sunscreens you might buy last-minute before heading to the lake this weekend.

This begs the question: if it’s not safe for coral, fish, and marine invertebrates (like the fishing bait you’re handling with sunscreen-covered hands), should you really be rubbing it on your face? What about your kids’ faces? It’s worth considering.

In talking with Reef Safe, I realized there were several myths about sunscreen worth considering, myths that needed to see the naked light of day.

Myth #1

“There are chemical sunscreens and chemical-free sunscreens.”

This is false. All sunscreens use chemicals, though these chemicals behave differently.

The sunscreens marketed as “chemical-free” sunscreens are more accurately called “physical sunscreens.” These are the sunscreens that lifeguards in every 80s and 90s movie put on their noses. These products remain visibly white because they don’t absorb into the skin but form a coating over it that blocks sunlight, thus the name “sunblock.”

The sunscreens marketed as “chemical” are those that absorb into the topmost layers of skin and create a molecular coating. These sunscreens use compounds such as oxybenzone to create a chemical reaction with UV light that converts the light into heat that dissipates off your skin.

Though allergies to the second kind are more common, they are perfectly safe and just as effective at blocking UVA and UVB light when you use the right sunscreen.

Myth #2

“The more SPF the better.”

This is false. Sort of.

According to Reef Safe Suncare’s research, the ideal sun protection factor (SPF) is “a minimum of 15 and a maximum of 50.”

SPF — like pounds, miles, gallons and most measurements adopted in the United States — involves a strange calculation based the bodily idiosyncrasies of a few randoms. It’s true.

In 1962, scientists tested how long it took 20 individuals to burn both without sunscreen and then with it.

Once they knew how long it took those 20 people to burn without sunscreen, they applied increasingly more potent sunscreen to see how long these people could last without burning.

SPF was a measure of time the average person in the study could spend in the sun without burning. It doesn’t calculate how protected you are, but rather how long you’re protected.

So the SPF you need depends on the time you plan to be in the sun.

If you can make it 10 minutes without burning sans sunscreen, you could go 20 minutes with SPF 2 (10 x 2 = 20) or 10 hours with SPF 60 (10 x 60 = 600).

This doesn’t factor in submersion in water or sweating, so reapply as needed.

Myth #3

“My sunscreen is waterproof.”

This is also false. Sort of.

Physical sunscreens sit on top of the skin and begin to wash off once exposed to water. Always.

Chemical sunscreens take about 15 minutes for your skin to fully absorb them, but after that 15 minutes is up, they can be waterproof (Reef Safe’s products are), but keep in mind, you’re on a timer. If you’re a Skin Type 1, remember to reapply often.


Your best bet is to choose the lowest SPF sunscreen your skin type can tolerate that still meets your exposure time requirements. I tend to prefer the SPF 15 because I sweat often enough in the summer heat that reapplication every few hours is necessary anyway.

Just because school is back in session, doesn’t mean you can’t burn.

Take care of your skin now, so your grandkids can recognize you in old pictures later.

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