Many sunscreens use ingredients that can harm coral reefs – even those labeled “reef safe.” The evidence is so strong, many of the world’s top diving destinations including: Bonaire, Hawai’i, Palau and parts of Mexico now ban sunscreen with toxic ingredients.
The primary suspect is oxybenzone, a common sunscreen ingredient used by big brands like Banana Boat, Coppertone, Neutrogena and others. Oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3 or BP-3) may be bad for people too. It can reduce testosterone levels in men.
Even though you only put sunscreen on your skin, chemical ingredients can seep into your body. Oxybenzone has been detected in amniotic fluid, urine and blood, and in the breast milk of dolphin and human mothers. To learn more, read ‘Sunscreen Beyond Oxybenzone‘.
Natural vs. Reef-Safe vs. Organic Sunscreen
– A sunscreen may be made labeled “natural,” “reef-safe,” “organic,” or “biodegradable,” but that doesn’t mean the contents aren’t toxic to coral. Always check the ingredients. Don’t use sunscreens containing oxybenzone, avobenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate or 4-methylbenzylidine camphor if you plan to go anywhere near the water. Even a small amount can cause coral bleaching.
– According to NOAA, no sunblock is scientifically-proven to be reef safe, but mineral sunscreens made with non-nano titanium oxide or zinc oxide do not appear to harm corals.
– Because chemical processes are used to create sunscreen, even mineral-based ones. The best option is to cover up rather than slather on. Wearing a long-sleeved rashguard with UV protection is safer than any sunscreen, and (bonus) you don’t have to remember to reapply. Bonus: PADI Gear rash guards are made from recycled ocean plastic!
The Best Natural Sunscreens for Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
Please note: the sunscreens below are not endorsed by PADI®. We do not have a bio-chemist on staff, or a lab to test hundreds of sunscreens. Luckily, there is an organization that does – EWG. We compared their list of recommended sunscreens to products with a lot of positive reviews on Amazon to create the list below. If you purchase any of the products on this page using our Amazon Associates links, any revenue earned from the product sale will be donated to support the ocean conservation efforts of Project AWARE®.
2. TotLogic Safe Sunscreen SPF 30
People love TotLogic. At the time this article was written, TotLogic had some of the best reviews of any sunscreen on our list.
3. Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen, Sensitive SPF 30+
The bottle changes color in UV light, a great reminder to reapply.
4. BurnOut Ocean Tested Physical Sunscreen, SPF 30
We’ve been making these “best of” sunscreen lists since 2013, and BurnOut (along with Blue Lizard above) has been on almost all of them.
6. Badger sunscreen face stick
EWG gives Badger’s entire product line top marks, and Amazon shoppers love them too. Badger has a wide range of reef-friendly balms, creams and sticks for adults and children.
What about spray-on sunscreens?
Spray-on sunscreen is super-convenient, BUT, a lot of spray sunscreens (including many that claim to be reef safe) use avobenzone. Just like oxybenzone, avobenzone can be absorbed into your bloodstream. Even worse? Avobenzone doesn’t protect your skin very well.
Avobenzone breaks down quickly in the sun (within 30-60 minutes). To be effective, it has to be paired with a stabilizer – often something that’s toxic to marine life.
I’ve tried a few different natural spray-on sunscreens and gotten burned. I’m not sure if the zinc oxide gets too diluted when made into a spray or what. I found one spray-on sunscreen that received an acceptable rating from EWG and five stars on Amazon, but it costs a lot more than the non-spray options.
Seek Adventure, Save the Ocean
PADI encourages all divers to make ocean-friendly choices in all aspects of their lives. Marine debris and overfishing are massive threats to the health of our ocean planet. Our individual choices really do matter. As a PADI Torchbearer, you can turn your passion into purpose. Learn more about our Torchbearer Goals here.