Snorkeling Sunscreen – What Works and Is Reef Safe

Bottles and tubes of snorkeling sunscreen on a table.

We have used a lot of snorkeling sunscreen and have 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, we have found that many products that are labeled 40 or even 80 minutes water-resistant, are not, and you will get burned. Second, most major brands use chemicals like oxybenzone that are known to be deadly toxic to corals and fish, including Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic, Banana Boat, Neutrogena, Panama Jack, Sun Bum, and many more.

Fortunately, through side by side tests, we have found a few great options that are both reef safe and very water-resistant, that will keep you from getting burned while snorkeling. Read more below.

Also on this page we share important information about how to apply sunscreen for snorkeling, and answers to just about every other snorkeling sunscreen question you may have.

Best Snorkeling Sunscreens From Our Tests

Applying sunscreen on a hand.

We have done extensive testing of sunscreens for snorkeling on multi-week trips in the Caribbean, the Maldives, Hawaii, and Indonesia, 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 then we rate them on a number of criterion.

Click here to see the best snorkeling sunscreens from our tests. The great news is that we have found some reef safe sunscreens that are water-resistant 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.

Since your lips require a different product, we tested snorkeling lip sunscreens too and share our recommended reef safe SPF lip balms on this page.

When we test new sunscreens we write about them in our free newsletter. Get yours.

How to Know if a Sunscreen Is Water-Resistant Enough for Snorkeling?

Ideally you want a sunscreen that is labeled water-resistant for 80 minutes. 80 is the maximum tested water resistance that the FDA will allow a sunscreen to claim. Sunscreen companies in the USA are no longer allowed to use terms like “waterproof” or “sweat-proof”.

Unfortunately, we have found a number of sunscreens rated for 80 minutes that clearly are not, and we have gotten burned. So we recommend you buy from our list of tested snorkeling sunscreens above, because we have actually tested them for hundreds of hours snorkeling.

Also, it is very important that you allow most sunscreens to dry for at least 15 minutes before entering the water, or they can wash off. See our application tips below.

What Sunscreen Chemicals Are Killing Coral Reefs and Fish and Are Hazardous to Your Health?

Most major brand sunscreens have chemicals in them that are directly linked to coral and fish death. These chemicals also appear to lower the resistance corals have to global warming bleaching events that are devastating the world’s coral reefs.

The same chemicals absorb into the skin of fish and people and are reproductive toxins and endocrine disrupters. They cause a variety of problems in fish reproduction and health issues in humans (like men growing breasts). Before we stopped using those types of sunscreens we both had skin and health issues from their use.

Learn more about this topic at NPR, Nature, and the very informative video below.

The main reef/human harming chemical you want to avoid is:

  • benzophenones (oxybenzone, avobenzone, Parsol 1789, Mexoryl SX, Tinosorb) – This is the main active ingredient in most sunscreens.

Then there are a variety of others that are marine toxic, and bad for humans. Here is a partial list.

  • parabens
  • cinnamates
  • camphor derivatives
  • cylcopentasiloxane / cyclomethicone
  • methylisothiazolinone
  • octoxinate / octyl methoxycinnamate

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. Stream2Sea has a good list of ingredients to be aware of here.

Use a Physical (Mineral) Snorkeling Sunscreen

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 and zinc oxide stay on the surface of your skin and reflect UV rays. All the sunscreens we recommend in our tests linked to above use zinc or titanium, or a combination.

In the past titanium and zinc sunscreens were very white on the skin. New formulas are less white. Personally we like our sunscreen to go on 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.

Some companies though use nano-sized particles to avoid the white look, but you want to avoid those because they are considered a health hazard. Also, some companies use “Clear” or “Transparent” zinc, and these should also be avoided because they use components that are highly toxic to marine life.

My Sunscreen Says Biodegradable – Is That Reef Safe?

Note that just because a sunscreen is labeled “biodegradable” does not make it safe for reefs or you. Many toxic chemicals are readily biodegradable, including oxybenzone. Some ingredients are fine until they biodegrade into components that are then marine toxic.

Snorkeling Sunscreen FAQ and Application Tips

What SPF for Snorkeling Sunscreen?
It depends on your skin type, the product, and how you are using it. We tend to use SPF 20 or 30 without getting burned when snorkeling for an hour and a half (and then we reapply).

Chart showing SPF values next to percentage sun rays blocked.

Does SPF 50 Block Twice as Many Rays as SPF 30? Nope – Only 1% More
There are many misconceptions about what the SPF numbers mean. They have nothing to do with time in the sun or the length of time it takes to burn. They are a measure of the percentage of rays blocked from reaching your skin. The chart shows that the difference between SPF 20 and SPF 100 is a measly 4%. And, since the texture and color of mineral sunscreen gets thick and very white as the SPF number goes up, we recommend SPF 30 as the highest you need to go.

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. The minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are UVA sunscreens too.

Snorkeling Sunscreen Application Tips
Apply it at least 15 minutes before you get in the sun or the water. It will work much better and will not wash off as easily. And then reapply often, at least every two hours, or between snorkeling spots.

Sunscreen can rub off. Nicole has burned her bum because she applied sunscreen to her backside, and then had it rub off on a snorkel boat seat. 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 the ones we recommend on our snorkeling lip sunscreen page. 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.

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 the sunscreens we recommend 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.

Use Snorkeling Sunscreen Alternatives – Like Long Sleeved Rash Guards

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. You can also wear a rash guard with a hood or one that covers your whole body to use even less sunscreen (link above has more info).

So pretty much we only use sunscreen on exposed skin: neck, ears, the back of our hands, etc.

We also use sun hats and long sleeved t-shirts when we are not in the water.

More Snorkeling Equipment Tips