To try and find the best snorkeling sunscreen, that is also reef friendly and biodegradable, we spent two weeks testing sunscreens in Bonaire. And we were very surprised by the results.
Our goal was to find out if the natural biodegradable and reef friendly sunscreens would actually work for snorkeling. And quite frankly, although we like "natural" products, we did not really expect these to work as well as the more chemical filled non-reef-friendly products we have used in the past, like Coppertone and Banana Boat. Learn more about this whole reef friendly thing here.
All of the sunscreens that we tested are physical sunscreens, vs. chemical sunscreens. You can read more about that here, but pretty much that means that instead of using some nasty chemicals they instead use either Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide, or a combination of both, to block the sun. But these are not the pasty white sunscreens of the past.
We had planned on testing UV Naturals. But after reading many reviews about how poor it was at being waterproof, and seeing how darn expensive it is, we decided to pass.
We also planned on testing Tropical Seas Reef Safe (by Beach Buff). But it was the one sunscreen company that still used the chemicals that are supposed to be bad for the reef, although they claim they have made their product so waterproof that none of it comes off in the water. We ended up not testing this because we really did not want those chemicals in our sunscreen.
To find the best snorkeling sunscreen we started out comparing two different brands at once. We would each apply one type to one side of our bodies, and another type to the other side (right leg, right arm is Soleo, left arm, left leg is Badger). Then after a couple of days of use, snorkeling several locations a day, we would narrow it down to one we preferred and test it more by itself.
First, we were frankly very impressed with three of the four. We really did not expect these natural sunscreens to work that well. When in fact three of the four worked remarkably well, and one really stood out as the best snorkeling sunscreen. This is a case where a natural product is actually a better performer than the mainstream stuff.
Most of the negative reviews we have read about all of these natural sunscreens we now believe are mostly because they are being applied incorrectly. Whereas most of the common chemical based sunscreens are applied much like a lotion, where you can apply a lot and rub it in, that does not work with these.
These are not lotions. They are not meant to be worked into your skin. Instead they work on the surface of your skin. They will all leave a white sheen to start, but as they dry and soak into your skin, that white sheen will mostly go away.
Here is how you use them. Shake them up. Then put a small amount in your hand and apply it very quickly and thinly, without attempting to rub it in. Only rub it on enough that you have a very thin covering, without excess, and then leave it alone. Try not to rub it between your hands before applying. In sunny and windy conditions it will dry out faster requiring quicker application.
Also, you need to apply the sunscreen at least 20 minutes before getting in the water.
We tested both Soleo Organics 30 sunscreen and Badger SPF30 sunscreen at the same time, since they both had similar properties, being primarily zinc oxide in essentially the same amounts 22%.
To make Soleo work correctly you have to massage the tube to get the oils all mixed in. If you don't it will be very oily.
Both of these sunscreens are on the oily side when they are on. But if used correctly, without applying too much, they are not overly oily on the skin.
Both of them are pretty darn waterproof and sun proof. We tested them on two different days of snorkeling, and they kept us from being burned, and stayed very waterproof. If we went for a long snorkel (over an hour) we re-applied. We actually applied one type to one leg and another to another, so we could test them in the same conditions. And between these two, we found that Badger worked better for both of us. It stayed more waterproof, and it allowed a bit less color from the sun on our legs (probably because the Soleo washes off easier). Badger is whiter on the legs though, and a little less pleasant to apply, being a thicker consistency. But it is also much less expensive which is a plus. The Soleo also has the scent of sunflower seed oil, which you may or may not like.
So between the two the Badger is the winner, because of better performance in the water, and a much better price.
Having decided that we preferred using Badger we then used it by itself for several days. We soon realized that it was not as effective when re-applied, particularly if we are a little wet and don't allow it to dry. It washed off much easier in those conditions, which makes it not as good for snorkeling trips where you get in and out of the water often.
We initially thought we would love this stuff. But it was easily the worst performer.
Caribbean Solutions uses 9% Titanium Dioxide and 3.5% Zinc Oxide. It is much like the others above for putting it on. It is fairly thin, but does not really spread all that easy. It goes on whitish, and dries with less white appearance than all the others. It was less oily than the Badger, but harder to spread than the Mexitan.
Unfortunately it is much less waterproof than all the others in the group. When we got out from a snorkel we found that it was mostly gone. We both got a decent burn and it definitely was not as good as the others for sun protection.
Another way that it is clearly not very waterproof is when we re-applied it. We wanted to go back out in the sun after our snorkel. We dried our legs and reapplied. But with any moisture on your legs, it mixed with the water and stayed very white and filmy, and when our swim shorts dripped any water down our legs, the sunscreen just ran off. It was pretty ugly and gave us no confidence it was working. Also, Nicole in particular appeared to have some sort of allergic reaction to it. So we did not even try to use it again. It is not appropriate for snorkeling.
Caribbean Solutions Results
Next we tested Mexitan by itself. It is a much thinner type of sunscreen, that goes on much easier than the two above, and it uses Titanium Dioxide 6% and Zinc Oxide 6%. We were skeptical, and almost did not test this product because of some bad reviews. Some said it just washes off, and you get a terrible burn. The other reviews said that it has a weird consistency and peels off. And really the name is mis-leading. Mexitan started as a tanning oil company, and added this sunscreen product later. Really it should be called Mexi-can't-tan. Although they have started selling their SPF products under the Tropical Sands and Coral Safe labels, which is better.
We used this for many days snorkeling (and many trips afterward) and are really impressed with it. It is very thin and goes on easy. The trick to using this is to quickly rub a thin layer over your skin, and then stop rubbing it. If you try to rub it in until the white stuff goes away, it will dry out and you will rub it off in little balls. Used correctly we did not have this problem at all. Note that we don't recommend their SPF15 because of this balling problem (it looks like they have now stopped making SPF15).
If you apply it right, this is a very waterproof sunscreen, and completely prevented us from getting sunburned. And we mean waterproof. If anything this is almost a problem, because it is hard to get it off in the shower.
Best of all, it reapplies very easily. It kept us from getting burned on a long day of snorkeling in and out of the water a half dozen times, reapplying it several times. And it did that without our skin being perfectly dry when we reapplied it, and without letting it stay on the 20 minutes before getting back in the water.
So all and all, this is an easy recommendation as the best snorkeling sunscreen, if you can train yourself to use it correctly. It's price is not bad, and it has a pleasant Eucalyptus smell, and has the simplest ingredients. So, thumps up. You have to purchase it directly from the manufacturer and have it mailed to you, so don't plan on picking it up on a trip.
The winner of our best snorkeling sunscreen test is Mexitan. We like it so much we wrote an entire Mexitan sunscreen review page for it here, with detailed application instructions.
We have now used Mexitan on many long snorkeling trips, where we snorkel an average of three spots a day, and we still love it. We will probably test new products in the future though.