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All About Coral-Safe Sunscreen

Updated on October 26, 2012

Don't Harm Coral When You Snorkel!

Often called “rainforests of the sea,” coral reefs provide habitat for many ocean species. Not only are coral reefs beautiful, they also protect coasts from strong currents and keep carbon dioxide in the ocean in balance. Unfortunately, like the rainforests, coral reefs are dying. One way we can help is to use environmentally-friendly sunscreen when snorkeling.  Here’s some tips on helping you choose a reef-safe suntan lotion that protects your skin without harming the ocean’s rainforest.

How Suntan Lotion Hurts Coral

Coral is a living organism that needs algae for food. Research now shows that certain ingredients in regular suntan lotions activate viruses inside algae. When these viruses replicate, they kill off the algae. Without the algae, the coral dies.

Ingredients to Avoid

Four main ingredients that harm coral cited in a recent study are: paraben, cinnamate, benzophenone, and camphor. Avoid these ingredients. Some experts also recommend avoiding suntan lotion with anything beginning with "oxy" or "hexa.” Another problem with some sunscreens is that the oil in them can float in the water, blocking sunlight. So try to avoid sunscreen that seems to come off too easily and leave oily residue.

Ingredients to Look for

Look for ingredients that say biodegradable, organic or natural or that assert that they are coral safe, reef safe, eco safe or environmentally friendly. Remember, these terms do not guarantee that the product is reef-safe. You still need to double check the actual ingredient list. Look for active ingredients that are thought to be safer, such as zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and avobenzone. The good news is that these ingredients are probably not only safer for the environment, but also safer for you.

Where to Buy Coral-Safe Sunscreen

Increasingly department stores are offering environmentally safe sunscreen.  You can also look in health food stores. For the best selection, look online. Amazon has lots of choices and you can read customer reviews before buying.

What to Expect from Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Reef-safe sunscreen or sunblock is effective. If it says it offers SPF 30, for example, it will protect you as well as a regular SPF 30. Biodegradable suntan lotion may go on differently. Some brands work better when rubbed in more slowly as they may “pill up” when rubbed too quickly. You may need to experiment to find the best reef-safe sunscreen for you. Reading reviews on Amazon may help you choose.

How to Apply Reef-Safe Sunblock

Apply coral-friendly sunscreen or sunblock early. If you apply 10 to 20 minutes before you enter the water, the lotion has a chance to absorb into the skin, and less of it will wash off. Rub in slowly but as much as you can. Sunscreen will rub in better than sunblock, which is more opaque. Even environmentally friendly products can contain ingredients that float in the water, blocking sunlight. Coral need sunlight to thrive. So apply early, apply sparingly, and rub in thoroughly.

Limit Exposed Skin

Wear a rash guard to protect your torso and shoulders. Put reef-safe sunscreen only on areas that will be in sun while snorkeling or swimming, such as face and back of legs.

Cut Down on Exposed Skin With a Rash Guard

Oakley Men's Long Sleeve Pressure Rashguard T-Shirt
Oakley Men's Long Sleeve Pressure Rashguard T-Shirt

You can buy rash guards at a sporting goods store. Amazon also has tons of them available. They cut down on sun exposure and protect you from gritty sand. Rash guards feel lightweight in water and dry easily.


Cut Down on Other Products

Other personal products, such as antiperspirant, perfume, and body lotion, may also harm the delicate reef eco-system, so do not wear these when swimming in the ocean, especially when near coral.

Avoid Touching Coral

Even the oil and bacteria in your skin can harm coral, so do your best to never touch coral.  Keep fins away as well. If you can't easily swim without touching the coral, then move away to another area.

Spread the Word

Tell your friends about eco-friendly sunscreen and share with others on the beach if you see them applying regular sunscreen.

Reef-Safe Sunscreen as a Gift

Once you find a brand of reef-safe sunscreen you like, buy a few extra bottles and give as a gift to fellow beach goers.

Recommend a Reef-Safe Product

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