a female snorkeling beneath the surface

What Sunscreen Should You Use When You Go Snorkeling?

Snorkeling is a pastime that is synonymous with tropical paradises. The crystal clear water in any imagery is accompanied by a sun blazing away to provide the kind of recreation most dream of.

As humans, we have different tolerances for the sun’s rays and put on sunscreen to protect ourselves from harmful exposure over a prolonged period in the sunlight.

However, the sunscreen you use for the beach could be harmful to oceans, and in particular, the reefs and corals which thrive in a fine ecosystem.

As a question then, what sunscreen should you use as a snorkeler?

A snorkeler should look for a sunscreen that is mineral based. ‘Reef safe’ doesn’t necessarily mean non-harmful as there is no standardized definition. The best solution to protecting the environment for snorkelers is to wear a rashguard to limit skin exposure and apply a mineral based sunscreen containing Zinc oxide or Titanium dioxide labeled as non-nano, water resistant, and a minimum of SPF30.

In October 2015 an Israeli study was performed by various experts in oceanographic research found in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands small amounts of sunscreen were environmentally damaging because of the presence of a substance called oxybenzone.

The results of the study were written up in the Washington Post article by Darryl Fears.

It’s feared that up to 6000 tonnes could be put into the oceans.

ocean sunscreen info

At least according to the National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior

a female snorkeling on the surface

Can You Use Normal Sunscreen?

There are several chemicals in sunscreens sold throughout the world that are harmful to marine life, and the ecosystems that sustain them.

These chemicals are;

  • 3-Benzylidene Camphor
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor
  • Octocrylene
  • Benzophenone-1
  • Benzophenone-8
  • OD-PABA
  • nano-Titanium
  • Dioxidenano – Zinc Oxide
  • Octinaxate
  • Oxybenzone

These are commonly found compounds in sunscreens that shouldn’t be used in a marine environment.

So if your regular sunscreen has these compounds and you want to go snorkeling, it’s more beneficial to find reef safe sunscreens.

Why Is Sunscreen Bad For The Reef?

Part of the snorkeling experience isn’t just to see the seabed but to witness the variety of marine life and their natural habitat.

Coral is not only alive themselves, but serves the purpose of protection for fish and other wildlife. They are living ecosystems that need protection from factors such as overfishing, tourism, and poisoning.

The aforementioned study provides valuable insight into the fact that we tourists may not be helping. It’s entirely unintentional but sunscreen contains chemicals hazardous to this aquatic world.

The National Academy of Sciences is continuing to work on the issue, but it seems the sunscreen chemicals you apply to yourself to stop sunburn, leech off while you are in the water.

They don’t stay on the skin, and millions of tourists contribute to a continual poisoning effect of the precious ecosystems.

As sunscreen leeches off, it enters the water system which needs protection.

If there is an accumulation of too many of these chemicals, then it can have an adverse reaction on corals. Corals exist in symbiosis with a mucous layer, which is why you shouldn’t touch them.

Sunscreen can have the same effect. Chemicals build up in the coral tissue, can disrupt the system and induce coral bleaching, deform, and even kill off a colony.

As the chemicals contain harmful organic compounds, they can build up in algae, crustaceans, urchins, fish, and even dolphins.

Often in all marine life, the effect of sunscreen is to affect the reproductive systems and deform young. It also impairs immune systems.

a female snorkeling in a rashguard

What Sunscreen Is Safe For Reefs?

Many people wear rashguards as a solution to the problem. I do, and it works well.

Many don’t though, and there are risks with wearing no sun protection at all, not least of which might be increasing cases of skin cancer. Sunscreens reduce this risk so a balance has to be found.

On the one hand, we want to keep skin cancer diagnosis down, but also not damage reefs and aquatic life.

Many companies put ‘reef safe’ on their products to make the products distinct, but there are some issues currently being worked out.

The truth is the term is quite vague and we don’t have a clear definition for the term. So it can be said to be reef safe if applied to a single user. Trace elements of the same chemicals can still be labeled as ‘reef safe’ from a marketing point of view.

There have been no tests, and if many people use the same product the harmful effects can still materialize.

There are snorkeling locations that receive thousands per day, or millions per year, so you need an effective solution. 

Nobody wants to be contributing to the problem.

Also, while some compounds have been isolated that cause harm, the fact is many similar compounds could get around any legislation but still have harmful effects.

Just putting ‘reef safe’ on the packaging might not be enough.

So obviously, the idea is to solve the problem, not be a victim of marketing gimmicks.

The best way is still to keep the amount of skin exposure to a minimum. If you wear a rashguard around the torso and arms, you will need sunscreen on much less an area.

This is the biggest contribution you can make, making the amount of skin you need to cover, smaller.

The best alternative appears to be mineral sunscreens.

Chemical sunscreens penetrate the skin and absorb UV rays, while mineral sunscreens reflect the sun rays of the skin.

Thus mineral sunscreens need to be applied in greater quantities, and will ‘wash off more readily. An ocean friendly sunscreen needs to be water resistant.

a female snorkeler in shallow water

Ocean Friendly Ingredients

Sunscreens that are considered ocean friendly contain Zinc oxide or Titanium dioxide. Mineral sunscreens will reflect the sun’s rays, rather than be absorbed.

As well as a mineral UV filter for an ocean friendly sunscreen, it’s best if the products are described as ‘non-nano’.

Although there are various definitions, especially from a percentage point of view, non-nano refers to having particles above 100 nanometers in size.

The bigger particle size has less effect on the ocean it seems, or indeed absorption by yourself.

So, non-nano sunscreen with Zinc oxide or Titanium dioxide seems the most reef friendly options currently available.

A list of sunscreen that meets that criteria currently are;

  • Mama Kuleana Waterproof SPF 30 Reef-safe Sunscreen
  • Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian SPF 50 Natural Zinc Sunscreen
  • Little Hands Hawaii SPF 35+ All-natural and Organic Sunscreen
  • Manda Organic SPF 50 Sun Paste
  • Raw Love SPF 35 All-natural Mineral Sunscreen
  • Thinksport SPF 50 Sunscreen
  • All Good SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen Lotion
  • Babo Botanicals SPF 30 Clear Zinc Lotion
  • Suntegrity Natural Mineral Sunscreen
  • Badger SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen Cream
  • Raw Elements SPF 30 Certified Natural Sunscreen
  • Stream2Sea SPF 30 Mineral Sunblock
  • Loving Naturals Clear Body SPF 30+ All-natural Sunscreen
  • Banana Boat Simply Protect SPF 50+ Sunscreen (spray, not lotion)
  • Olita Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30

If you pick from that product listing, you should be as assured as you can be that you are doing your bit to keep the reefs and oceans as safe as possible.

Final Thoughts – Parting Waves

Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreens containing the two most harmful ingredients currently known, namely, oxybenzone and octinoxate.

These are the most harmful to marine life.

The minimum sun protection factor is SPF30, and a sunscreen labeled as water-resistant is beneficial as it won’t wash away in the ocean.

Keeping the reefs and marine life safely by having a responsible attitude to snorkeling with the best protection from the sun is a burden that I think we all should share.

No-one, regardless of political differences would want to deliberately cause harm to the reefs and aquatic life that inhabit them.

We can all do our bit to help maintain a healthy snorkeling environment, by minimizing skin exposure with a rashguard and applying a safe sunscreen to the areas that need lotion.

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