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The Best Sunscreens For Boaters: Our Top 5 Picks

Sun protection is vital when spending time on the water. But not all sunscreens are equal. Here’s what makes a good sunscreen for environmentally conscious boaters

Five bottles of various sunscreen lined up next to each other on a black table.

Photo: Kelsey Bonham

Reef-safe,” “all-natural,” “non-greasy,” “chemical-free” … the bottles of goop we buy to protect ourselves from the sun and its damaging ultraviolet rays all make bold (and sometimes indecipherable) claims. Yet most sunscreens look nearly identical once they leave the packaging and get smeared onto your skin. So what’s the difference? We did the research to find the best sun- screens for your health – which won’t leave stains on your seats or leech toxins into the water – so you can spend less time afflicted by decision paralysis in the sunscreen aisle and more time enjoying sunburn-free boating.

SPF what?

One of the first things that stands out on any sunscreen label is SPF, which stands for Sun Protection Factor. SPF offers a number rating, typically from 15 up to 50 or more. The rating is based on solar exposure, which is a factor of both time and intensity. One hour in the sun at 9 a.m. could produce the same amount of solar exposure as 15 minutes at 1 p.m. It also takes less time to receive the same amount of exposure at lower latitudes, on clearer days, and in reflective environments such as on the water.

SPF ratings apply only to UVB radiation, which is the kind of radiation most closely associated with sunburn, skin damage, and cancer. Overall, a higher SPF rating indicates higher levels of protection. But the scale is not linear. An SPF 15 sunscreen will block 93% of UVB radiation, while an SPF 30 sunscreen will block 97%, and SPF 100 will block 99%. There is ongoing debate among dermatologists about the “right” level of SPF protection, but most agree SPF 30 is usually enough, although there’s nothing wrong with going higher.

In addition to the SPF rating, you’ll also want to look for “broad-spectrum” sunscreens. As well as protecting against UVB radiation as indicated by the SPF rating, broad-spectrum sunscreens also protect against UVA radiation. UVA radiation is less associated with sunburn, but it is associated with premature skin aging, wrinkles, and some cancers. Broad-spectrum sunscreens ensure you have all your bases covered.

Whatever sunscreen you choose, the real key to getting the most out of it is using it as suggested. Reapply at least every two hours (or as recommended), and more often if you’re sweating or jumping in and out of the water because no sunscreen is truly “waterproof.” Store your sunscreen in a cool, shaded location, and discard after its expiration date.

Overall, the best thing you can do for your skin health is to think of sunscreen as just one tool, as it’s rarely enough when spending full days on the water in the blaring sun. Sunscreen should be used in combination with sun-protective clothing, polarized sunglasses, and breaks in the shade. And – it can’t be emphasized enough – reapply, reapply, reapply!

Our top sunscreen picks

While we couldn’t test every sunscreen on the market, we tested as many as possible. We took the manufacturers at their word on the SPF rating, given that it is an FDA-regulated metric. After that, we dug into the ingredients and used each one to get a feel for its texture, scent, absorption, and skin feel. These are the brands that came out on top in our opinion, at a variety of price points.


Cream and brown colored bottle of Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian SPF 50 Natural Zinc Sunscreen with hula dancer on label

Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian SPF 50 Natural Zinc Sunscreen

This sun cream was created by a cruising sailor who believed existing sunscreens were inadequate for the demands of life on the water. In addition to SPF 50, broad spectrum with its only active ingredient being non-nano zinc oxide, it also rubs in clear, isn’t greasy, and has nearly no scent besides a faint whiff of pleasant aloe and vanilla. Once applied, you barely notice you’re wearing it. $30 for 3 fl. oz. |


A white bottle with a blue top of Blue Lizard Sport Mineral-Based Sunscreen

Blue Lizard Sport Mineral-Based Sunscreen 50+

This Australian sun cream is mostly mineral-based, containing 10% zinc oxide and 5% titanium dioxide. It also has 5% octisalate, a chemical filter that offers extra protection if you’re feeling nervous about mineral-only varieties. It’s still oxybenzene- and octinoxate-free, rubs in relatively easily, and has a weak scent. Bonus: The bottle changes color when exposed to UV radiation as a reminder to reapply! $20 for 5 fl. oz. | ­

Black and tan bottle of Thrive Bodyshield 50 sunscreen

Thrive Bodyshield 50

If you prefer a slightly thicker sun cream to help you know you’re covered, Thrive Bodyshield 50 has the look and feel of a traditional sun cream but rubs in dry and clear. Its only active ingredient is non-nano zinc oxide, putting it in the “best of the best” category for boat and ocean health. Like the others, it has little to no scent and minimal greasiness. $30 for 6 fl. oz. |

White bottle of Sun Bum Mineral SPF 50 and  Original SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion

Sun Bum Mineral SPF 50 and Original SPF 50 Sunscreen

Lotion For a variety of options both online and in most major box stores, Sun Bum is a great one-stop shop. Both its Mineral SPF 50 and Original (chemical-based) SPF 50 lotions are reasonably priced. Even the company’s chemical sunscreen is oxybenzene- and octinoxate-free, so you can avoid the worst offenders regardless of which formula you choose. The Original does have a slightly stronger (though pleasant) scent relative to our other recommendations, so keep that in mind if you’re sensitive to fragrances. $18 for 3 fl. oz. of Mineral formula, $18 for 8 fl. oz. of Original ­formula |

White, red and blue bottle of Equate Sport Broad Spectrum  Sunscreen Lotion

Equate Sport Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30

You don’t need a luxury brand to get higher quality sunscreen! Even some varieties of Walmart’s budget Equate sunscreen are oxybenzene- and octinoxate-free. If you’re looking to avoid the worst chemicals, just turn over the bottle of any generic-brand sunscreen, and you may find what you’re looking for. Equate is one such example. $5 for 8 fl. oz. |

Underwater view of fish swimming in a coral.

Scientists believe that chemicals in sunscreens can damage coral, like the partial bleaching of Molasses Reef in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary seen here. Photo: Matt Kieffer

For the love of the water

Recently, scientists have raised questions about the impact that sunscreens may be having on the marine environment, especially coral reefs. Some states, notably Hawaii, have even banned certain types of sunscreens due to these concerns. But terms like “reef-safe” and “reef-friendly” aren’t regulated, so there’s no guarantee that the “all-natural, reef-safe, ocean-lover’s” sunscreen you just picked up is any different than the generic one next to it. Additionally, boaters may have noticed (and complained) that some sunscreens seem to leave stains or residues on fabrics. So what else should boaters be looking for on that label, besides SPF rating and broad-spectrum coverage?

This will disappoint some, but for more boat-friendly and environmentally neutral sunscreens, opt for creams or lotions instead of sprays. A well-applied sun cream is likely to offer more protection than a spray, simply because a spray is more likely to result in thin and patchy coverage. A lotion also stays where you put it, whereas spray can drift into the water or onto boat fabrics where it can stain or result in an unpleasant, greasy seat. The rubbing in required by lotions also tends to result in more absorption, which leads to better protection and less runoff into the water or onto the boat.

Once you’ve committed to a sun cream, turn over your potential purchase and look at the ingredients. Research is ongoing about which ingredients are truly best or worst for the marine environment, but there is some consensus worth mentioning. To understand what these ingredients are and what makes them good or bad, we need to understand the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreens.


Visit­Clothing to learn more about sun-protective clothing for boaters.

Chemicals, minerals & ­nanoparticles

Some sunscreens protect skin from UV radiation with chemical filters that actively absorb UV radiation and dissipate it as heat, preventing it from penetrating your skin. But they can also adversely react with the environment around them, including your boat’s materials and marine life. The current consensus is that oxybenzene and octin­oxate are likely the worst for the marine environment. The reactive properties of other chemical filters found in sunscreens are less known, but any chemical has the potential to react negatively with the environment or your boat’s vinyls or fiberglass. So to be on the extra-safe side, opt for mineral-based sunscreens.

Mineral sunscreens use ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to physically block UV rays from reaching your skin, as opposed to absorbing and dissipating them like chemical sunscreens. If the list of active ingredients does not include either of these minerals, the sunscreen likely works with chemical filters.

These nonreactive minerals are far less likely to pose a threat to your boat or to the water, but there are distinctions even within mineral sunscreens. Some research has shown that titanium dioxide can react with seawater to create hydrogen peroxide, which is toxic to marine life. Other research has shown that nanoparticles (ultratiny particles) of any mineral, whether zinc or titanium, can be more likely to dissolve and leech into the water.

Lifeguards know best

Given the lack of transparency in labeling, and ongoing environmental studies on sunscreens, what should a responsible boater use? Perhaps the most surprising conclusion is that the best sunscreen for your body, boat, and soul is good, old-fashioned zinc. But that doesn’t mean you have to walk around with a white lifeguard stripe on your nose; most zinc-based sunscreens rub in clear or near-clear.

If you’re looking for the best of the best, look for broad-spectrum, SPF 30 or higher mineral sunscreen lotion with the only active ingredient being non-nano zinc oxide. If that’s not available, use any mineral sun cream. If you don’t like the look or feel of mineral sun creams, use a chemical sun cream without oxybenzene or octinoxate. We’ve done the homework for you (see page 31). Be sure to use a sunscreen no matter what, and if you can use one of these preferred brands, all the better for your boat and for the environment.

Test your SPF IQ

1. What does SPF stand for?

A. Sunburn Prevention Factor
B. Sun Protection Factor
C. Sunburn Protection Force
D. Sun Prevention Force

2. SPF ratings are based on which of the following?

A. The amount of time you’re protected
B. The degree of solar intensity you’re protected from
C. The amount of solar exposure you’re protected from
D. How well it stays on your skin

3. Solar intensity can be affected by which of the following?

A. Latitude
B. Cloud cover
C. Time of day
D. All of the above

4. Which active ingredient is considered the “best choice” when it comes to a sunscreen’s safety for both your boat’s materials and marine health?

A. Zinc oxide
B. Titanium dioxide
C. Avobenzone
D. Oxybenzene

5. What does a mineral sunscreen do?

A. Provides valuable vitamins and minerals to improve your skin health
B. Physically blocks UV radiation from penetrating your skin
C. Absorbs UV radiation and dissipates it as heat
D. Stains fabrics and vinyls

ANSWERS 1. B, 2. C, 3. D, 4. A, 5. B

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Kelsey Bonham

Editorial Assistant, BoatUS Magazine

Kelsey is an editor and writer for BoatU.S. Magazine, covering everything from the environment to tech news, new media to personality profiles. A lifelong sailor, at 20 she refit her own boat top to bottom, then skippered the 30-footer down the ICW. She’s been a professional crew and instructor on boats up to 100 feet, written for several other boating magazines, and earned her 25-ton Master’s license in 2024.