Sunscreen. Choose Wisely.

Before you schlep on that sunscreen…

Do you know what is in that cheap sunscreen that you bought at the last minute in the souvenir store? You may be surprised to find that many of those common, readily available off the shelf sunscreen brands contain one, if not several chemicals that may be poisoning coral reefs and the marine animals that inhabit them.

There is a growing list of chemicals that are hiding in your sunscreen that are killing reefs and damaging ocean inhabitants. Evidence suggests (Jasa, Russell, Irons, & Litchman, 2017) that 4,00 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen gets dumped on reefs around the world every year. These numbers are likely to rise as the number of global tourists increases. The most common offending chemical is Oxybenzone a.k.a. BP-3 or Benzophenone-3. It is used extensively in sunscreens, cosmetics and other personal care products.  While it is very effective at blocking UVA and absorbing UVB, oxybenzone is also cheap to produce and easy to formulate, making it very attractive to companies who mass produce, market and sell cheap sunscreens. One drop of this stuff per 6.5 Olympic sized swimming pools is enough to be toxic to baby corals. One reference we found indicates that oxybenzone has contributed to the loss of 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean alone.  Not only does it harm current corals, it has a degenerative effect causing each subsequent generation of corals to be less resistant to threats. If you’d like to find out more about Oxybenzone and other dangerous chemicals used in sunscreens, we have provided a list of References below. We encourage you to not only get informed but spread the word! Knowledge is power!

What can we do about it?

Obviously, we need to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of overexposure to the sun. At the same time, we need to find a balance between our own self-protection and protecting the marine environment that we all enjoy so much.

The best solution, obviously, is not using any chemical sunscreen at all. Instead, cover up! Now, a full body rash guard with a hood is not for everyone. Consider though, by just using a long sleeve rash guard, you cut down on nearly 50% of the sunscreen you otherwise would have used. If you want to work on your tan when out of the water, just take off the rash guard and put it back on when you’ve had enough sun.

If the cover up option is not practical, the next best option is to find a sunscreen that does not contain harmful chemicals, or at the very least contains as few bad elements as possible. Just like buying food or any other product you ingest or apply to your skin, check the ingredients before you buy. Be aware of what to avoid. To help you decide, we’ve compiled a few references that can help you identify what to look for in a good, reef-friendly sunscreen and what to avoid…

Tropical Snorkeling (Piehl & Atkins) publishes a pretty good list of sunscreens and regularly tests products on the market.

Scuba Travel (Studholme, 2017) and Natural Society (Fidler, 2017) both have quick guides on what to look our for when you’re buying sunscreen.

Before you go ahead and purchase your next sunscreen, take a good look at the list of ingredients. If it contains any of the following, we highly recommend you choose an alternative…


Fidler, J. (2017, May 24). How to Pick a Sunscreen That’s Safe for Coral Reefs and Aquatic Life. Retrieved from

Jasa, A., Russell, D., Irons, O., & Litchman, Z. (2017, April 25). THE EFFECTS OF SUNSCREEN ON CORAL REEFS. Retrieved from DEBATING SCIENCE:

Piehl, G., & Atkins, N. (n.d.). Best Snorkeling Sunscreen. Retrieved from

Skincare Chemical Threatens Coral Reefs. (2015, November 15). Retrieved from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration:

Studholme, J. (2017, February 12). Which sunscreens are safe for sea life? Retrieved from

Vesper, I. (2017, February 03). Hawaii seeks to ban ‘reef-unfriendly’ sunscreen. Retrieved from