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The Private, Exclusive Guide for Serious Divers Since 1975
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October 2013    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 39, No. 10   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Sunscreens that Protect Divers as well as Reefs

from the October, 2013 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In last month's issue, we ran a story about the actual results of many high-SPF sunscreens, and how many of them just use high numbers as a gimmick. We listed the results of Consumer Reports' survey of sunscreens, and then listed the ones they ranked as best buys.

But how well do those sunscreens protect the reefs, asks subscriber Lisa Evans (Fort Collins, CO). "I was dismayed to see there was no information about the damage done to coral from many commercial sunscreen products. I've researched this, and while I still use conventional sunscreen for land-based activities, I make it a point to buy reef-safe sunscreen for my dive trips. Right now I have Goddess Garden 30 SPF ( ). I encourage you to help readers become aware of the potential damage their sunscreen is causing to coral reefs."

You're right, Lisa. While it's counter-intuitive to think that 15 divers from a liveaboard, each putting on two tablespoons of sunscreen before diving over an area several acres across and 75 feet deep, will be wearing enough of any chemicals to affect the reefs below, washed-off sunscreen can damage corals. The U.S. National Park Service reiterates what Evans says: Chemicals in sunscreen can lead to bleaching, dying coral. A 2008 study in the journal Environmental Health Perspectives found that up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas annually and it does not spread out rapidly or evenly over the entire ocean, but concentrates on popular tourist sites. It's estimated that 90 percent of snorkeling and diving tourists are concentrated on 10 percent of the world's reefs, meaning our favorite dive spots are exposed to the majority of sunscreens.

So with the corals in mind, "reef safe" biodegradable sunscreen is better than the conventional choices. Look for a brand that uses physical sunblocks such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide instead of chemical ones. And read the label. A product advertising itself as "reef safe" doesn't necessarily mean what it says. Look at ingredient lists to make sure reef-damaging substances (such as oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidine camphor, all of which have been shown to cause coral bleaching even at low levels) aren't included. Apply sunscreen at least 10 to 15 minutes before going in the water so that the lotion absorbs into your skin. PADI lists its recommended reef-safe sunscreens at

Ironically, the environmentally-friendly sunscreens on Consumer Reports' survey got the lowest marks for sun protection. The only one that got decent marks was California Baby SPF 30, scoring 50 out of 100. So divers have a dilemma: Protect against melanoma and harm the reefs, or save them at the expense of your own hide. Better yet, just stay out of the sun.

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