At this time, the term ‘reef-safe’ is unregulated and there are numerous brands offering ocean-friendly options. But how do we know which sunscreens are actually reef-safe and effective to use?  In February of 2019, the FDA issued its most significant proposed regulatory ruling to sunscreens. The overarching target of this update is ‘to bring sunscreens up to date with the latest science to better ensure consumers have access to safe and effective sun care options.” In addition, the FDA acknowledged serious public health concerns using chemical sunscreen ingredients and ultimately intends to help consumers become educated on what to (and what not to) look for in SPF products. Choosing the right sunscreen is critically important for both the reefs and your health, but as they gather the data needed to help ensure that products marketed offer protection and deliver on their promises, how do we [as divers] protect ourselves and our oceans? We’ve done the research, and here’s what we found.


There is no comprehensive list of reef-safe sunscreens. Therefore, to help you choose the right sunscreen effectively, we’ve put together a list of key things to look for:

  • Select options without oxybenzone and octinoxate. Make sure to read the ingredient lists. These two chemicals are harmful to corals and can cause sunscreen-induced coral bleaching. The absence of these chemicals points towards the product being reef-safe, as long as it meets the other requirements listed below.
  • Use “non-nano” mineral-based sunscreens with the ingredients of zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. Rather than being absorbed like a traditional sunscreen, the particles of these ingredients sit on top of the skin and block harmful UVA & UVB. It is both better for your health and will not harm corals – but only if they are“non-nano.” This means the ingredient particles must be above 100 nanometers in size so that they cannot be ingested by corals.
  • Avoid sprays or powder sunscreens. These types of sunscreens go airborne and indiscriminately pollute the environment. As well, they can become lung inhalants and pose a health hazard for you and the divers around you.
  • Be smart with reef-safe labels. Many companies claim their product is reef-safe or bio-friendly. Moreso, some sunblock lines within the same brand are reef-safe, while some are not. Be a smart consumer and always check the ingredients to be sure.
  • Choose sunscreens that are ‘Water Resistant 80 Minutes.’ This term is regulated by the FDA and represents a sunscreenʼs ability to remain effective after 80 minutes of exposure to water. ‘Waterproof’ and ‘All Day Protection’ claims are misleading and do not provide adequate sun protection.


Knowing how and when to use sunscreen effectively is just as important in order to ensure sun protection.

1. Sunscreen is the last line of defense, not the first. Sunscreens are only one element of a skin-cancer prevention strategy. Contrary to popular belief, no sunscreen alone will keep you totally protected. It is always suggested to stay out of peak sun between the hours, seek shade and wear protective clothing, sunglasses and a hat that provides adequate shade to the whole head. Make sure to avoid extended periods of exposure.

2. Apply more than enough, unless specified on the bottle. Make sure to read the bottle of your specific sunscreen, each is different. Using less than the correct amount drastically reduces the sunscreens ability to protect the skin and the SPF claim will not be met. Apply enough to leave an even, visible film over desired coverage area, then rub into the desired look.

3. Apply early, reapply often. The vast majority of chemical sunscreens require application at least 30 minutes prior to sun exposure to be effective. In addition, reducing this time period will reduce the effectiveness of the sunscreen. The only exception is the Non-Nano Zinc Oxide type – as a physical barrier is effective the moment it is evenly applied to the skin. Regardless of how ʻWater Resistantʼ a formula claims to be, it is wise to reapply after any diving, sweating, or excessive towel drying. Applying early and reapplying often will give the sunscreen the best chance to perform effectively.

What Type Does Explorer Ventures use?

Did you know? We strongly suggest using only ocean-safe sunblocks on your holiday. If you have brought a non-reef-safe sunscreen you will be encouraged to use the reef-safe products we have provided onboard. We currently carry  Raw Elements on our Caribbean liveaboards (with hopes to expand this option to the rest of the fleet in the future). Why Raw Elements? It is a certified natural and organic sunscreen which has a 23% non-nano zinc oxide active ingredient to keep users and reefs protected. In addition, Raw Elements mission is much aligned with ours – a dedicated team working towards creating a positive impact for our oceans.

Learn more about how to limit your environmental impact before and during your liveaboard trip. 

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