Safety First! Reef Safe Sunscreen, the Sea and You

Safety First! Reef Safe Sunscreen, the Sea and You

Snorkelers using reef safe sunscreen
photo credit: Captain Kelly Quinn-Sloan, Singing Dog Sailing

How to have fun in the sun while safely interacting within a delicate eco-system?

If you’re reading this, chances are you’ve got the fun part covered.  (If not, there is plenty of advice on this website to get you started.)  Currently, there is much discussion and debate in scientific communities about the impact of sunscreen on the ocean environment and the concept of BIODEGRADABLE, reef safe sunscreen as an alternative option. While there are many other environmental impacts affecting our coral reef systems, one key and easily addressed issue is SUNSCREEN choice and usage.

Understanding Personal & Environmental Impacts of Chemicals found in Sunscreen

From all the reports, studies, literature (some links listed below), the consensus is that one main chemical in commercial sunscreens—plus a few others—are negatively impacting the environment including bleaching and death of our coral reefs.

Effects of sunscreen on Elkhorn Coral
Bleached Elkhorn Coral , Waterlemon Cay, St. John, VI, 2016


Who is the MAIN bad guy?  OxybenzoneThis chemical can cause significant coral damage, including bleaching. Butylparaben (a preservative), octinoxate (a sunscreen) and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (a sunscreen) have also been found to have a significantly negative impact to the underwater ecosystem affecting living corals and even fish. These chemical are proven to affect the marine environment by changing the endocrine process.

Just imagine what harmful effects they may have on your personal health when being absorbed into your bloodstream! 

It’s frightening enough to understand the impacts of sunscreen on our marine environment and  personal health but imagine for a moment the economic impact on the tourism industry.  The degradation of the marine environment will most certainly change the visitor’s beach and aquatic experience as fish, turtles, rays and coral reefs die off.  

It is imperative that you make good choices when purchasing sunscreen. 

Expert Tips and Best Practices for Choosing and Using Reef Safe Sunscreen

We hope you will consider the following when choosing a reef safe sunscreen for you and your family:

  • Look at the ingredients.  Like food, the fewer chemicals, the better.
  • Avoid Oxybenzone, amongst other key bad guys.
  • Be mindful that sunscreens listing SPFs beyond 50, they are misleading.
  • Spray sunscreens are the enemy on almost all levels apart from misconception that application on squirming children is easier (just not effective in the slightest) which is why SPRAY SUNSCREEN of any kind is generally banned on boat charters and likely soon usage and manufacturing outlawed.

While recognizing that NO SUNSCREEN is entirely reef safe; opt out of any sunscreen with Oxybenzone.

On St John, a key coveted and protected resource  is our Coral Reef National Monument, this resource is a major draw of tourism to the island and neighboring islands . 

The National Park just published an informative guide to sunscreen usage in terms of interfacing with the environment: 

The key notes from that publication include the notion that not all sunscreens are reef safe, but that you can adopt a reef-friendly approach to having fun in the sun and water by considering a few key concepts:

  • Cover up.  Wearing hats, long shirts or rash guards (water shirts) will help protect from sunburn just like and often better than actual sunscreen
  • Apply sunscreen with a mineral base like zinc or titanium oxide as the best reef-friendly choice.                               

Like anything fun, keep it simple.  Don’t fall for the “biodegradable” gimmick when choosing a reef safe sunscreen unless it’s backed up with the right ingredient list!  Watch your ingredients. When in doubt, wear less sunscreen, cover up more skin and smile. You’re in the most beautiful places on the planet, you lucky dog!  And guess what? It doesn’t take a lot of extra work to minimize hidden health concerns and our impact on the environment. What’s great is that by a little tweaking of our routines and changing our buying habits we can ensure that our bodies and our playgrounds will thrive for years to come.

Captain Kelly

Other Links/Sources:

Here is a link to the most recent published list of 235 reef safe sunscreens .


About the author: Captain Kelly Quinn-Sloan is an expert on all things fun on the water! She has been a licensed captain since 2002 and is also a certified dive instructor who has led over 5000 Discover Scuba divers. She along with her husband Stephen Sloan are the owners of St. John’s only chartered luxury catamaran, Singing Dog Sailing along with their “affordable” monohull sailing charter company Salty Dog Sailing. Kelly is a regular contributing blog writer for  Look out for future posts on sailing, snorkeling, diving, knot tying etc!   



Post Discussion

Be the first to comment “Safety First! Reef Safe Sunscreen, the Sea and You”

Translate »
Skip to toolbar