Coral Reef Safe Sunscreens for Scuba Diving?

Sunscreen. Growing up in the Pacific NW, it was something I bought once every five years.*

After becoming a diver, I found myself buying it bulk from Costco, specifically Neutrogena’s Ultra-Sheer Sunscreen. Hey, it was effective, non-comedogenic, and didn’t give me that kabuki white-face look. 

* A terrible idea, most sunscreen expires in 1-3 years.

But late last year I saw an ad on the PADI Pro’s site for a coral safe sunscreen. Uh oh. Protecting your skin from the sun is important, but so are coral reefs! Have I unknowingly been killing coral?

I’d like to consider myself someone who helps rather than harms the underwater world, so I asked our friends at Project AWARE about this issue. They referred me to an article about corals and sunscreen from National Geographic.

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In a nutshell:

  • Chemicals contained in sunscreen can be harmful to the reef, but so are the compounds contained in the waste of hundreds of other products people use every day.
  • Other threats such as coastal pollution, overfishing, and sedimentation are probably a greater threat to coral reefs than sunscreen. We only have a shot at saving coral reefs if major change in behavior happens at the individual and collective levels.

So what’s a diver to do?
Tips on Choosing a Sunscreen

  • When it comes to sunscreen, look for a brand that uses physical sunblocks (titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) instead of chemical ones. 
  • Apply sunscreen at least 10-15 minutes before going in the water so that the lotion absorbs into your skin.
  •  Any natural product (organic, biodegradeable etc) is better for the environment then the conventional one. Some experts suggest avoiding ingredients with prefixes with “oxy-” or “hexa-”. 

My contact at Project AWARE recommended a 2011 study from EWG (Environmental Working Group). A group of doctors and scientists reviewed 1700 SPF products for their efficacy and toxicity. Read more about the study’s methodology or view the results.

Pasted below are some eco-friendly sunscreen options from EWG’s list that were also well-reviewed on The products below are not officially endorsed by PADI or Project AWARE, these are simply products that scored well in the EWG study that also have good reviews on

Sunscreen Stick- SPF 30
This sunscreen stick is advertised to “retain SPF after 80 minutes of activity in the water or perspiring ” The company states that the stick (chapstick consistency) provides sun protection of greater duration that the lotion version (80 min for the stick versus 40 min for the lotion pictured above). Who knows what the real lasting effects are when the entire time is spent underwater?

Extended wear or not, the size is certainly more convenient to fit in a dry box or pocket than a sunscreen tube or bottle. Sometimes it’s those between-dive reapplications that are the most critical.

Loving Naturals SPF 30
Loving Naturals advertises their product to be water-resistant for 40 minutes, it’s zinc-oxide based and “rubs in clear” (no kabuki-face). The product is made with 100% natural/organic ingredients  and is also available as a lip balm.

Do you have a favorite sunscreen? Leave a comment below or post to our Google+ page.

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