Backcountry Skincare: Sunburns and Blemishes Are Terrible Souvenirs
For years, I considered dry, sunburned, blemish-speckled skin to be an inevitable component of camping and backpacking. Like mosquito bites, these skin issues were an annoying but unavoidable part of the experience.
But what if skin issues don’t have to be part of an outdoor lifestyle?
To learn how we can enjoy backpacking and camping while maintaining healthy skin, I spoke with two board-certified dermatologists. Deirdre O’Boyle Hooper, MD, co-founded Audubon Dermatology in New Orleans, LA, and Jessica Labadie, MD — a self-described mountain mama — is a fellow at SkinCare Physicians in Chestnut Hill, MA.
Using their recommendations, I tested various methods of backcountry cleaning to see which option removed the grime the best. Since many of my camping trips begin with a shopping trip to REI, I tested several of their skincare options to find the best options for backcountry exploration.
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- Backcountry Skincare: Sunburns and Blemishes Are Terrible Souvenirs
- The Challenge of Backcountry Skincare
- General Camping Skincare Guidelines
- A Simple Backcountry Routine
- Backcountry Cleansing
- Skincare While Camping: After the Adventure
- Related Articles:
- Camping Skincare for Families
The Challenge of Backcountry Skincare
Backcountry camping (camping without a traditional campground) and backpacking both present unique skincare challenges.
While camping we are exposed to the elements for long periods of time. (That’s kind of the point, right?) Sunshine, rain, snow, and wind may thrill us, but they can damage our skin.
Without proper precautions, we are at risk for skin damage, acne, dry skin, sunburns, skin cancer, and skin infections.
Another challenge campers and backpackers face is removing dirt, sunscreen, and sweat accumulated during a day of peak bagging. Water is often limited. Backpackers, especially, struggle to sacrifice the drinking water we dragged up the mountain for face washing.
Car campers can carry more water, but in the backcountry, your water supply is limited by the amount in your tanks.
Finally, both backpackers and campers want light, minimal solutions. Backpackers don’t want to haul any ounce more than necessary. To keep our packs light, we cut our toothbrushes in half, chow down on dehydrated food, and carefully count every gram of water used. We don’t want to haul multiple skincare products. Whatever we carry must be versatile, lightweight, and effective.
Car camping offers more space for a little luxury, but once you pack the cooler, the kids, their sleeping bags, and pillows, little space remains for a complicated skincare regime.
General Camping Skincare Guidelines
Before embarking on any adventure, take a quick assessment of your family’s skin. If no one has skin problems, then it’s likely you won’t encounter any major skin issues on your trip. However, if you have some concerns, you should consult a dermatologist.
Your dermatologist knows your skin. She will be your best possible guide to prevent you from wasting money.– Dr. Hooper, MD
Ingredients to Avoid
When it comes to backcountry skincare, both Dr. Labadie and Dr. Hooper recommended avoiding any irritating ingredients – especially when camping or backpacking.
When water is scarce and washing less thorough, these irritating ingredients sit on your skin longer. Consequently, you increase your chance of a negative reaction.
Common irritating ingredients include alcohol, fragrances, essential oils, lanolin, and latex.
Alcohols dry the skin and damage its natural barrier. Unfortunately, many of the wipes that backpackers and campers use to clean include alcohol as a preservative.
Fragrances and essential oils are also very common and potentially irritating to your skin. They can cause irritation, redness, and rashes.
“Added fragrance is not helpful to your skin, but it can be helpful to your well-being if you enjoy the way it smells. But if you are going camping, avoid it.”Dr. Hooper, MD
Campers and backpackers have yet another reason to avoid fragrances in the backcountry: wildlife.
Bears and other animals are often attracted to pleasant smells. Strong scents can draw the wrong type of attention and bring unwanted furry visitors to campsites.
A Simple Backcountry Routine
For their backcountry skincare recommendations, both dermatologists emphasized keeping the skin as clean as possible and focusing on protecting it from the elements.
They recommended three basic steps: protect, cleanse, and moisturize. These three steps will keep major skin problems at bay.
For a minimalist backpacking routine, look for products that multitask, such as moisturizing sunscreen. Dr. Hooper suggests bringing only three products on a backpacking trip: a cleanser, moisturizing sunscreen, and petroleum jelly.
For those of us who want a little extra elegance, Dr. Labadie recommends bringing benzoyl peroxide gel (Labadie’s preferred gel and a less expensive option) to treat blemishes. This gel can be used all over the face or as a spot treatment. She also enjoys misting water on her face during long hikes.
Protecting the Skin
Our first goal should be to protect our skin from damage due to sun, wind, and cold. It’s much easier to avoid damage than to repair it later.
Most of us only think of sunscreen when we think about preventing UV damage. But we should really consider sunscreen an important part of a whole sun protection system. This system should include sunscreen, protective garments, hats, sunglasses, and — for infants — sun shades.
UVP-rated clothing provides the simplest, least messy defense against UV rays. I find it easier to put on a sun shirt than trying to smear sunscreen on my family’s sweaty skin mid-hike.
Ideally, your sun shirts will have long sleeves and hoods for maximum sun protection.
Too hot for long sleeves? Dampen your UVP shirts before hiking. The evaporative cooling will keep your family comfortable for hours.
Long, light-colored clothing also can also help protect against ticks. Dark insects, like ticks, are easier to spot against a light background. Pants and shirts can be sprayed with insect repellent, keeping more chemicals away from the skin.
(Test your spray on a small, hidden area of the garment first. Sometimes clothing can react to the sprays.)
Favorite UVP Clothing
Dr. Labadie recommends Coolibar clothing for UV protection because the company offers a selection of stylish and comfortable clothing.
I own two of REI’s Sahara Shade Hoodies, which I wear as beach cover-ups, gardening shirts, hiking jerseys, and running tops. These shirts feel like cotton and have a loose, attractive fit. I love that the hood has an internal drawstring to tighten, and the thumbholes protect my hands from UV rays.
My three boys wear an assortment of sun shirts. our favorite is REI Co-op Sahara Sun Hoodie. My son loves the extra ventilation at the hood and armholes. (We’ve rounded up more of our favorite kids’ sun protective clothing here.)
Hats and Sunshades
Hats and sunshades also play a vital role in skincare and in preventing skin damage to the ears and face.
The TMM team loves Sunday Afternoon hats. Their artistic trucker caps have a slightly wider brim, which provides more protection than many ball caps.
I wear Sunday Afternoon’s Havana hat. The just-wide enough brim protects my face from the sun. An adjustable internal band ensures that the size medium hat fits snuggly on my small head.
My boys, ages 7-12, pull their sun shirts’ hoods over their baseball caps for neck and ear protection. This provides the same coverage as a hat with earflaps — without actually having to wear earflaps.
For the youngest hikers, we like Sunday Afternoons Play Hats. You can find more of our favorites here.
Toddlers have a tendency to yank off hats, no matter how well you tied their strings, so look for additional ways to keep them shaded.
Dr. Labadie uses a Deuter Kid Comfort Child Carrier to carry her daughter on hikes. This backpack has a built-in shade to further protect your child’s skin.
Selecting a sunscreen can be a daunting process. Dr. Labadie recommends seeking a mineral-based sunscreen rather than a chemical sunscreen because the mechanism of mineral sunscreens is well-understood and has been shown to be safe and effective.
Look for sunscreens with SPF 30 or higher. Again, avoid fragrances. If you are planning to swim in natural bodies of water, select sunscreens that are known to be reef-friendly.
Remember that sunscreen wears off over time, especially when we are swimming or sweating. Dr. Hooper suggests setting a timer to remind us to reapply regularly.
Finally, look for a sunscreen that you enjoy using. Reapplying will be less of an issue if you like the product.
Sunscreens for the Face
Some mineral sunscreens are more elegant than others. These may cost a little more but are also more enjoyable to use, and they look great under makeup if you choose to wear it. Elta MD Clear and La Roche Posay blend smoothly on the skin with little to no white cast.
If you want one product for your face and body while backpacking, Dr. Hooper recommends looking for a moisturizing sunscreen. CeraVe Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen will leave a faint white cast, but it’s an effective multitasker.
Sunscreens for All Bodies
Sunscreens formulated without fragrance or harsh ingredients are often great for kids and adults. Some sunscreens that can be used on the whole family include Blue Lizard, Banana Boat Baby, and BabyGanics.
Personally, l prefer stick sunscreens for older kids. They are easy to apply, don’t spray everywhere, and won’t leak in my backpack. Some of our favorites are Sun Bum’s Mineral Sunscreen Face Stick, Raw Elements Face Stick, and Badger Active Sunscreen Stick.
All three are easy to apply, and the Raw Elements Face Stick and Badger sunscreen are reef safe. They also leave a faint white cast which eventually absorbs into the skin.
Winter Skin Protection
Sunscreen remains important in the winter, but it’s also essential to protect the skin from wind and cold. Dr. Labadie suggests keeping the skin covered as much as possible. Buffs can protect your face and neck.
In cold or windy weather, she recommends covering exposed areas with petroleum jelly, like Vaseline, or Aquaphor Healing Ointment.
After a day of hiking and many layers of sunscreen, we need a foolproof way to remove dirt and products before we sleep.
The dermatologists suggested several methods that can conserve weight and water while maintaining clean skin. When selecting one, consider water sources available to you, your skin’s sensitivities, and your preference.
Your cleaning method should also adhere to No-Trace Principles. Plan to carry out what you carry in and look for biodegradable soaps.
If you have space, you may find that you want to bring a could of different cleaning methods. Your body also has different micro-climates within it. Some warm, humid areas of the body encourage bacteria growth and can be prone to infection – and more smelly.
You may need to have several cleaning methods for these different regions. For example, you may want to use wipes for – ahem– dirtier body parts and micellar water for your face.
The Grime Test
I decided to test each method to see which did the best job of removing the ultimate hiking grime recipe: sunscreen + sweat + sand + dirt.
First, I applied a thick layer of sunscreen. Once smeared with sunscreen, I went for a mile jog on a humid 90-degree day to create a nice sheen of sweat. Then I rubbed sand on the sweaty sunscreen and a layer of dirt.
For methods that required water, I squeeze water from my Camelbak (which I would do backpacking) and weighed the water used.
Method 1: Biodegradable Soap
For good reason, washing with soap and water is the classic choice. But not all soap is the same.
Look for biodegradable soap to reduce your impact on the environment and wash your body away from natural water sources to avoid contamination.
Considerations: Some soaps, including castile soap, can dry the skin due to their alkaline nature. Use cautiously on the face and other areas prone to dryness. Check the pH level of other soaps if you have dry skin.
This method also takes a lot of water to effectively rinse the soap. If you wash with this method, make sure you have sufficient water supplies.
- Dr. Bronner’s Fragrance-Free Hemp Baby Pure Castile Soap
- Sea-to-Summit Trek and Travel Pocket Hand Wash
- Sea-to-Summit Wilderness Wash
Castile Soap Grime Test Rating: Meh.
This soap did not want to rinse off! I could not get enough pressure from my Camelbak to remove the soap. I was also surprised to find that this did not fully remove the sunscreen or the grit on top. Instead, it floated on top of the sunscreen layer.
Also concerning, is castile soap’s high pH, which can be drying. While a camping classic, I would not choose this soap.
Sea-to-Summit Trek and Travel Pocket Handwash Grime Test Rating: Good
These soap leaves are an innovative solution to camp cleaning. I love that they are solid, which means no leaking. It’s also very light and easy to pack.
To use according to the package’s directions, you remove a leaf with dry hands and then soak it in water for a few minutes. The leaf will dissolve into liquid soap. I knew I would not be so careful backpacking, so I decided to rehydrate the soap in the palm of my hand.
The translucent leaves became a soft, soapy putty that I messaged onto my skin. These tiny balls of soap effectively removed the sunscreen and dirt, leaving only a few grains of sand.
These would have been my favorite cleaning method, but the soap contains a light green tea fragrance. The scent is pleasant, but if you have sensitive skin or are camping in bear country, beware!
While I did not get the opportunity to test this wash, it looks like a great option. It claims to be as a multipurpose soap that can be used for the body and dishes. Unlike castile soap, it is pH neutral and should be more gentle on the skin.
Method 2: Fragrance-Free, Alcohol-Free Wipes
Wipes. I love them. I hate them. Many facial and body wipes promise to clean with a quick swipe. A package can be tossed in a bag or left in the car for a quick refresh after a hike, backpacking trip, or bike ride. With wipes, you don’t have to worry about having product leaked into your bag or making sure your child firmly tightened the lid. If they dry out, add a little water and they are good to go.
However, many are intensely perfumed with fragrance and preserved with alcohol. As a result, rather than getting a fresh feeling, they give red, angry skin.
To avoid this, look for fragrance-free, alcohol-free wipes.
Considerations: Wipes tend to be one of the least sustainable options for backcountry cleaning because they generate so much waste. To reduce your environmental impact, look for biodegradable wipes. But remember that even biodegradable wipes need to be packed out and disposed of properly.
Wipes are also the most expensive cleaning method. They are a great option for a weekend adventure but not for a longer excursion.
Grime Test Rating: Great!
I tested both Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes and Clean Life No Rinse Wipes. Both wipes removed the dirt, sunscreen, and sweat, leaving behind only a few grains of sand. These offered the quickest, cleanest results while using the least water.
Clean Life No Rinse Bathing Wipes felt very luxurious – like a microfiber washcloth. Because they were so large and plush, I would probably use only one to remove most of the dirt from my body. (The directions, however, suggest using one wipe per major region of the body.)
Sea to Summit Wilderness Wipes offered a satisfying clean and would be my wipe of choice. I preferred having wipes that are smaller and thinner. I could use them for little cleaning jobs and simply get another wipe if I need to remove more grime.
WaterWipes are highly recommended by Dr. Labadie who uses them for her daughter.
Method 3: Micellar Water
Dr. Hooper suggested using micellar water during backpacking trips. Micellar water has several advantages. It’s a gentle cleanser that does not need to be rinsed, and thus can save on water use.
At the beginning of the hike, you may have a heavier bottle, but its weight reduces as it is used (unlike wipes that need to be packed out).
Considerations: As with any liquid, leakage could be a problem. I would probably slip this in a re-sealable sandwich baggy.
Grime Test Rating: Good
I was surprised to see how well the micellar water rinsed the sunscreen and sweat from my arm when I simply poured the water from the bottle and rubbed it gently into the skin.
Strangely, it left a large amount of sand. The sunscreen dissolved into the water under the sand!
If I were to use this backpacking, I would try to brush off as much sand and dirt as possible before applying the micellar water. A microfiber towel, like a PackTowl, can double as a way to brush off debris before cleaning.
Skincare While Camping: After the Adventure
After testing all these cleaning methods I did exactly what both dermatologists recommend doing after an adventure – take a real shower.
A shower was the only thing that completely removed the sand and the sweat. For most backpacking trips, showers are hard to come by, but campers can consider using a portable shower. Some of these showers are even heated!
If you are showering outdoors, look for biodegradable shampoo and conditioner and avoid letting your water run into natural water bodies.
Moisturize and Heal
After cleansing, both dermatologists recommend applying a moisturizing cream like CerVa or Cetaphil Moisturizing Cream. Very dry areas may be treated with petroleum jellies, such as Vaseline and Aquaphor Healing Ointment. Finally, dab benzoyl peroxide gel on any blemishes.
Then begin planning for your next adventure!
Camping Skincare for Families
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