We use a lot of snorkeling sunscreen and have tried and tested just about every brand and type of this necessary goop to find what works. And honestly, finding a good snorkeling sunblock is not that easy for two reasons. First, most products that are marked as waterproof, aren't, and you will get burned. Second, you need to find one that does not have the chemicals in it that are known to be killing corals (and most of the major brands do).
Fortunately, through weeks of side by side tests, we have found a few great options that are both reef safe, are very water resistant and will keep you from getting burned while snorkeling.
Below we share important information about how to apply sunscreen for snorkeling, and answers to just about every other question you may have. But if all you want to know is what sunscreens we recommend from our testing, click here.
The truth is most sunscreens work out of the water, but easily wash off in the water. And no sunscreen is truly waterproof, or will last for more than a few hours without reapplication. And even good ones require a drying time to be water resistant before you enter the water.
New labeling laws in 2013 prevent sunscreen companies from using the words "waterproof", and "sweat-proof". They are able to say "water-resistant", and will specify if they are water resistant for 40 or 80 minutes. They cannot claim "instant protection" or protection for more than two hours without reapplication. But, we still have found sunscreens rated for 80 minutes that are not very water resistant.
Most major brand sunscreens have chemicals in them that are directly linked to harming corals (coral bleaching). Learn more about this at National Geographic, Nature, the National Park Service, and NOAA. The chemicals essentially kill the microalgae that live symbiotically with corals that they rely on for nutrition.
Specifically, the top brands are not currently considered reef friendly, including: Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic, Banana Boat, No-Ad, and Panama Jack.
The main reef harming chemicals you want to avoid are:
These same chemicals are also not good for you. We both started to get skin issues from using the major brands. Read about the health hazards of chemical sunscreens in this EWG article. And look up the sunscreen you are considering in their EWG Sunscreen Report.
So if chemical based sunscreens are bad for you and the reef, what is the other option, and how do they work differently? Well, chemical based sunscreens absorb into your skin and absorb UV rays. But physical sunscreens, like titanium dioxide & zinc oxide stay on the surface of your skin and reflect UV rays.
New Titanium & Zinc Sunscreens Do Not Leave You Pasty White
Physical sunscreens use titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to reflect, scatter and block UV rays. In the past these types of sunscreens would have been very pasty, leaving your skin white. But there is a new method being used called micronized zinc oxide, or micronized titanium dioxide, that goes on almost clear. And there are also versions now that are tinted and you won't look white at all. Personally we like it to be a little white so we can see we have applied it evenly, and we can tell if it is still on at the end of a snorkel, or if we need to reapply.
We have done extensive testing of sunscreens for snorkeling on multi-week trips in the Caribbean, the Maldives, and Hawaii, comparing sunscreens side by side, literally. We lube up one side of our bodies with one brand, and the other side with another brand.
And the great news is that we have found 3 brands of sunscreen that are more waterproof and kept us from getting burned better than any of the major store brands, and we have no negative physical reactions to them. We have used products like this for years, on many trips.
Apply it 20 to 30 minutes before you get in the sun or the water. It will work much better and will not wash off as easily.
Reapply often. Remember, there is no such thing as a waterproof sunscreen, only water-resistant. We reapply regularly. Most suggestions say every two hours. But sometimes we reapply more often, particularly between snorkeling spots.
Sunscreen rubs off. Nicole has burned her bum because she applied sunscreen to her backside, and then sat on seats on a snorkel boat. It rubs off. And Galen has had burned shoulders because it got rubbed off by the snorkel bag when walking to the beach. So be aware.
Also, don't forget your lips. Get a good sunscreen lip balm, like this one from Stream2Sea. It stayed on us through long snorkels, but it is a bit white. It is not so much for when your face is in the water when snorkeling, but before and after.
Speaking of having your face in the water. Do we sunscreen our faces? No. We try not to sunscreen our faces when we are snorkeling. It makes it hard for the mask to seal and it runs into our eyes. We do sunscreen our ears, necks, chins, and sometimes a little on the high forehead. We just make sure to wear sun hats when not in the water.
We try to use as little snorkeling sunscreen as possible these days. First because we don't really like the stuff, and second because the FDA can find no evidence that sunscreens actually reduce your chances of skin cancer.
To use less sunscreen we now always wear long sleeved rash guards. They have the added benefit of adding a small amount of warmth, and preventing jellyfish stings.
So pretty much we only use sunscreen on our legs, feet, neck, ears, and the back of our hands.
We also use sun hats and long sleeved t-shirts when we are not in the water.
What SPF For Snorkeling Sunscreen?
It depends on your skin type, the product, and how you are using it. We tend to use SPF 30 without getting burned when snorkeling for an hour. Generally we find higher SPF physical sunscreens to be more difficult to apply. They can also be very white. There is also information out there that higher SPF sunscreens simply do not work better.
Keep in mind that SPF is only a measure of effectiveness against UVB (the type of ultraviolet radiation that causes sunburn), not UVA (the kind of radiation that causes invisible damage - you won't feel or see it immediately).
For UVA protection you need what is called a broad spectrum sunscreen. Most sunscreens are now broad spectrum, but just make sure it indicates it covers UVA & UVB.
Snorkeling Sunscreen Storage
Do not store sunscreens in very hot places (in your car) as extreme heat can ruin their protective ingredients. Also most natural and biodegradable sunscreens should be stored in the refrigerator when not being used regularly to prolong their shelf life. And always smell your sunscreen before using it. If your sunscreen has gone off and smells like rancid oil, do not use it. Rancid oils are very toxic.
Buy Direct From The Manufacturer For The Freshest Product
We recommend buying these sunscreens directly from the manufacturer when possible because they are natural products with limited shelf lives and they do go bad. Several times we have purchased from re-sellers and had a bad bottle, probably because it sat on the shelf for too long.