Article

Protect Yourself and the Ocean

Aerial photo of a shoreline and blue ocean with three boats near shore.
Shoals at the Hook of the Cape, Cape Lookout National Seashore.

NPS

Are you preparing for a beach getaway full of swimming, sandcastles, and sun? As you pack your beach bag with snacks and beach towels, don’t forget this essential item for a safe and enjoyable ocean vacation—sun protection. Sun protection should always be a top priority, but it’s even more important while visiting the beach:

  • the sun’s rays intensify as they reflect off the sand and water,
  • bathing suits typically expose more skin, and
  • swimming, sweating, and toweling off remove sunscreen applications.

However, your skin isn't the only thing to protect when you visit coastal parks this summer. Your sun protection choices can also affect plants and animals in the ocean. More than 95 million people visit ocean and coastal parks every year, and the sunscreen they apply can wash off into the water. Sunscreens that include the ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, and avobenzone can harm marine life. For example, some chemicals in sunscreens decrease reproduction in fish or cause defects in young mussels. They can also impair the growth of green algae, which provide marine habitat and are an important food source. The amount of sunscreen that washes off into the water is not just a drop in the ocean. An estimated 25% of applied sunscreen ends up in the water and as a result it is not protecting your skin. When water eddies, pools in coves and bays, or is calm during tidal changes, the concentrations can be high. Through water and sand sampling, the National Park Service has detected high concentrations of some of these harmful chemicals. You can protect yourself and our beautiful oceans by making a few simple choices.

Ocean-Friendly Sun Protection Tips

Protect Yourself Protect the Ocean Campaign Graphic
Protect Yourself, Protect the Ocean Graphic

Quick tip: Look for sunscreens with non-nanotized zinc oxide or titanium dioxide!

To know what to look for when purchasing ocean-friendly sunscreen, you can understand sunscreen as belonging to one of two categories: physical sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. Physical sunscreens (also called mineral-based sunscreens) contain tiny minerals that physically block harmful rays from the sun, and these are considered ocean-friendly sunscreens. Ingredients found in mineral-based sunscreens include zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Chemical sunscreens use synthetic compounds that absorb UV rays from the sun before they reach the skin and often contain ingredients that can harm marine life. Ingredients to avoid when shopping for sunscreen products are the synthetic chemicals oxybenzone, octinoxate, and avobenzone.

You can also protect yourself from the sun by wearing UV-rated clothing like a swim shirt or rash guard. Protective clothing, umbrellas, and avoiding the sun when it’s highest in the sky (between 12 pm and 2 pm) can protect you from the sun’s intense rays and keep harmful chemicals out of the ocean.

By adopting an environmentally mindful sun protection routine, you protect yourself from the sun's harmful rays while helping the National Park Service protect our beautiful oceans.

Last updated: July 20, 2021