Picking the best snorkeling sunscreen is hugely important. Really!
First, the wellbeing of your skin is a big deal. If you spend a lot of time outside in the sun (as you usually do with snorkeling) without the right sun protection, you can end up sunburnt. And, aside from that just being painful, it can also cause your skin problems down the road.
Second, the health of our planet’s coral reefs is also essential. Coral reefs provide a home to a huge amount of biodiversity in our oceans and directly influence the health of the sea, but have been declining in health and in some cases even dying off in big numbers in recent years. Certain chemicals traditionally used in some sunscreens are considered to be a significant factor in reef decline.
There’s still a lot to see in the oceans out there. Healthy reef systems full of fish, rays, sea turtles, and plenty else do exist. They’re fantastically beautiful, and always an incredible experience to snorkel through.
But, the reality is that coral reefs are under threat, in part from what sunscreens we choose. Another reality is that picking up sunscreens that keep both our skin as well as our reefs healthy is really easy. We just need to know what to look for and where to find them.
So, let’s outline what to look for in the best snorkeling sunscreen (and why it even matters) as well as our picks for the best snorkeling sunscreens that I use every time I’m in the water.
What to Look for in Sunscreen for Snorkeling
The first thing that we want to make sure that our snorkeling sunscreen has is a resistance to water. That makes sense, of course, because if it just washes off as soon as we jump in the water, it’s pretty much useless to us.
No sunscreen can claim to be fully “waterproof” (it just doesn’t work that way), but we want to pick one that is “water resistant”. Water resistance also has a time factor (the amount of time that it’s typically water resistant), and 60 minutes is a healthy number to look for.
Next, we want to make sure that any snorkeling sunscreen that we choose is reef safe for the sake of our oceans. It needs to explicitly say that it’s “reef safe” right on the packaging — otherwise, we can’t really know.
And, lastly, the best snorkeling sunscreens are biodegradable. This designation might not seem like a huge deal if we already have a reef-safe sunscreen, but this ensures that any sunscreen which washes off of us breaks down organically and won’t leave any chemicals behind. It’s a great way to do the ocean a solid.
Why Reef-Safe & Biodegradable Sunscreen Matters
As coral reefs have started declining in recent decades, scientists have really had to take a close look at what’s behind this decline. A lot of the findings have been sobering.
Plenty of the chemicals in use in traditional sunscreens — a lot of multi-syllabic compounds like oxybenzone, octinoxate, benzophenone-8, and about six others — can directly affect the coral themselves, causing bleaching, damaged DNA, deformity and even death of the organism. That’s really rough on reefs.
But, many of these sunscreen chemicals have been found to directly affect a lot of marine life, too. Green algae (a type of ocean plant, which are responsible for producing 50-85% of the oxygen for the entire planet [source]) experience impaired growth and photosynthesis. Mussels have reproductive defects. Sea urchins find themselves with damaged immune systems. Fish decrease fertility and reproduction. Dolphins absorb the chemicals in their tissue and transfer them to their young.
It’s a big deal.
And, it’s a big enough deal that even some places like Hawaii [source] and Palau [source] have actually banned sunscreens that have these damaging compounds.
It’s even important to phase out non-reef-safe and non-biodegradable sunscreens in everyday use. If I don’t have any intention of going in the water at the beach and just apply traditional sunscreen, overspray (or even just general contact with my skin) can soak sunscreen into the sand and it can eventually wash into the ocean. Or, the sunscreen I rinse off in the shower later can easily get into waterways and ultimately end up in the sea.
So, always using an effective reef-safe and biodegradable sunscreen is crucial. If we want to keep snorkeling, we need to protect both our skin and the ocean that we enjoy. The best snorkeling sunscreens won’t compromise on either.
The Best Snorkeling Sunscreens
Alba Botanica Sensitive SPF 50 sunscreen
After trying a ton of reef-safe sunscreens over the years, the one that for me has been head and shoulders above the rest as the best snorkeling sunscreen is Alba Botanica’s Sensitive SPF50 sunscreen [Amazon].
First, the sun protection has proven to be really solid for me. The SPF 50 designation really does well to protect my skin from those gnarly UV rays. Plus, it’s water-resistant to 60 minutes, so I can get a lot of snorkeling in before needing re-apply.
Next, it’s both officially reef safe and biodegradable. Finding both in a sunscreen that actually protects my skin well has been huge. I can feel good about not harming the ocean with my sunscreen while also not having to worry about sunburn.
I’m also not a huge fan of goopy sunscreens that you have to rub on, so the spray form factor is really nice. I just make sure to spray on a nice, even coating (hold your breath while doing it to keep it out of your mouth and nose) and let it dry for a few minutes before getting in the water. I don’t find it to be greasy or sticky (which was also something I don’t like about other options).
I’ve been really happy with Alba Botanical’s sunscreen, and find it to be the best snorkeling sunscreen out there. The price difference between it and regular sunscreens is negligible, and it’s really easy to pick up on Amazon and have it delivered to your door before your next snorkel trip. I recommend going with the 3-pack to save a little dough per bottle since it’s easy to go through a couple if you’re snorkeling a lot.
Safe Sea Sunscreen & Jellyfish Sting Protective Spray
Something I always include as kind of an interesting “honorable mention” as far as the best snorkeling sunscreens go is Safe Sea’s Sunscreen & Jellyfish Sting Protective Spray [Amazon].
As you might have guessed, it works both as a reef-safe sunscreen and a repellant to jellyfish (and other things like sea lice). It’s a really interesting idea.
Pretty much all of the reviews are something along the lines of, “I used it and didn’t get stung by anything. Not sure if it was the sunscreen or if nothing would have happened anyway.” There’s no way to know for sure, but it’s intriguing.
I’ve noticed a difference with sea lice (those tiny little organisms that don’t really hurt you, but feel like pins and needles on your skin as you swim) when not wearing it. As far as jellyfish go, I’m not sure, but I do throw a little on if I’m in an area that has jellyfish (though I avoid snorkeling if there’s a higher number of dangerous types around, cause that’s just common sense.) Why not?
The Best Snorkeling Sunscreen for Kids
Goddess Garden Mineral Sunscreen
Finding the best snorkeling sunscreen for kids takes on added importance for a couple of different reasons.
Kids’ skin is much more sensitive, so we need a sunscreen that’s both big on sun protection and also gentle on the skin. Kids are also notoriously difficult to rein in and get to sit still to apply sunscreen, so we want something that squeezes every minute out of its water-resistant time so it doesn’t have to be reapplied constantly, and we also want something that isn’t unpleasant to put on.
Always having these requirements in mind, my go-to for the best snorkeling sunscreen for kids is Goddess Garden’s Mineral Sunscreen [on Amazon], and it really knocks it out of the park with what I’m looking for.
First, it has an excellent SPF50 sun protection factor. It also uses ingredients that are much more gentle on skin like shea butter, essential oils, coconut oil, etc. So, it’s big on keeping little ones’ skin safe and healthy both from the sun and from irritation.
Next, it has an huge 80-minute water-resistant rating, so you aren’t having to constantly flag down your kids and push for a new layer of sunscreen (which is huge when all you want to do is chill on the beach, or even if you just want to have more time for fun with them in the water). And, it smells nice and isn’t weird or greasy, so it’s a lot easier to get kids on board with.
When you add in the fact that it’s reef safe, the Goddess Garden Mineral Sunscreen definitely wins my pick for best snorkeling sunscreen for kids (and, honestly, it works great for adults who might prefer a rub-on sunscreen, too).
Bonus: The Best Rashguards
One other thing I always recommend alongside the best snorkeling sunscreens is a rashguard, which is a kind of a tight-fitting water shirt that you can wear while snorkeling.
Wearing a rash guard can be huge for sun protection. When I snorkel, my back and shoulders are pretty much always pointed directly up toward the sun which can be a problem if I’m not always on top of re-applying my sunscreen.
Instead, if I’m wearing a rashguard, I don’t have to worry about sun exposure anywhere that it covers. That’s great for my skin health, and it also means I can use less sunscreen overall (though obviously be sure to cover any exposed skin with reef-safe sunscreen).
I’ve sworn by the Volcom Men’s Lido Solid Short Sleeve Rashguard (view on Amazon) for years. It’s been really sleek in the water, and the short-sleeve design gives me a little extra freedom of movement that I like. My wife really likes the REKITA Women’s Long Sleeve Rashguard (view on Amazon) because it provides great protection and gives her a little more insulation through the arms and hands, which she likes because she tends to chill easier.
Or, if you’re looking for the best rashguards for kids, I’m a big fan of Kanu Surf’s Platinum rashguard for boys (Amazon) or the Keri version for girls (Amazon).
Both add excellent SPF50 protection, they come in tons of different colors, and they’re really easy to clean (just throw them in the wash). Ultimately, they go a long way toward keeping kids’ skin safer from the sun both in the water and on the beach.
The Deep Dive
It might not seem like our choice of the best snorkeling sunscreen would affect both our own health and the health of coral reefs, fish, dolphins and other ocean residents so profoundly, but it really does.
Fortunately, with a little knowledge, it’s really easy to pick excellent reef-safe and biodegradable sunscreen (and other sun protection) that is fantastic for snorkeling. Here’s to many years of snorkeling with healthy skin and healthy reefs!
Check out some of our other helpful guides on picking out the best snorkel gear below: