Sunscreen: Pros and cons for Scuba, Free, or Snorkel Diving

It’s hard to deny the pleasures of basking in the warm glow of tropical sunshine and shimmering blue waters … until you find yourself beet red and nursing a sunburn.

A sunburn is exactly as it sounds…the burning of skin from exposure to the ultraviolet (UV) rays of the sun, which causes redness and inflammation within only a few hours of exposure. Most burns are 1st degree: red, painful, and tender to the touch. But too much exposure can lead to more severe burns that cause blistering and may even require medical care.

Even if you’re not typically prone to getting burned, don’t underestimate the intensity of the sun’s rays, especially in the tropics, where the angle of the sun amplifies the UV index (an international standard measurement of the strength of the ultraviolet radiation from the sun at a particular place on a particular day). As always, prevention is the best medicine.

Wear sunscreen:

Sunscreen is your best bet for protecting against burns. However, there’s been concern in recent years that sunscreen runoff is bleaching and otherwise damaging coral reefs, a great concern when you consider that an estimated 5,000 metric tons of sunblock washes off swimmer’s body’s each year. Some experts recommend sticking to sunscreens that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide rather than chemical ones. Oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate, and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor are the biggest offenders. You also can buy reef-safe sunscreens like Badger Sport.

Apply it 10 to 15 minutes before going in the water, so it can absorb into your skin.

Use a lot. Studies show most people apply less than half the amount they need for full-body protection. Cover yourself completely. And reply often.

Check the index:

Most weather apps will list the UV Index, which ranges from 0 (low danger) to 11+ (extreme risk). Any reading 3 (moderate risk) or higher requires precautions not to get burned.

Cover up & seek shade:

The sun’s rays are strongest from about 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. If you’re going to be out all day, take extra protection in the form of a wide-brimmed hat, a light cover up, and/or an umbrella. Take a break from basking directly in the bright sun and find some shade. Remember, too, that sand and water reflect the UV radiation into shaded areas, so while you’re somewhat protected under hats and umbrellas and overhangs, you’ll still need some sunscreen.

Too late:

Treat it by applying aloe vera gel and take ibuprofen to reduce the inflammation and pain. You can also apply cool, wet compresses of equal parts milk and water to soothe hot, sensitive skin. Drink plenty of water. If the burn is bad, don’t dive.

1. Sunblock, Tanning Oils and Bug Repellents Can Be Harmful to the Environment:

The oils and chemicals found in non-biodegradable products such as sunblock, tanning oils, and bug repellents can pollute and damage the marine environment. Even “waterproof” products are likely to wash off after prolonged submersion. When possible, environmentally conscious divers should use hats, sunglasses and clothing to protect them from the sun as opposed to sunblock.

Of course, sometimes sunblock is the only way to prevent a burn. In this case, a simple solution to avoid polluting the ocean is to carry baby wipes to clean off any products before jumping in the water. Baby wipes are also an excellent way to freshen your face after a dive!

2. Sunblock and Other Oily Skincare Products Can Irritate the Eyes:

Even a diver who dons his mask on a dive boat and leaves it in place for his entire dive is likely to find that a small amount of water enters his mask underwater. Water (or sweat) that enters a mask may cause sunblock or other skin care products to dribble into a diver’s eyes. Divers who have experienced this know that it is unpleasant. Sunblock burns the eyes terribly and a diver can do little to alleviate the pain underwater. Clearing or removing a mask to flush it out usually only wets the divers face further, causing more oils to run. A diver in this situation must either deal with the discomfort or end his dive.

3. Sunblock Can Make Even a Good Mask Foggy:

If sunblock, sweat, or other oils coat the interior lens of a scuba mask, the mask will fog horribly during a dive. Even a mask that has been treated with defog, toothpaste, or other mask-defogging agents is likely to fog when sunblock is on the lens. As many divers have discovered, a foggy mask can ruin a dive, and it may even be dangerous as it decreases a diver’s awareness of his buddy and his environment. Once sunblock or other oils have come into contact with a scuba mask, the mask must be washed with soap or detergent to eliminate any oils and then thoroughly rinsed to ensure that soap residue does not irritate his eyes on the next dive.

The Take-Home Message About Sunblock and Scuba Diving:

Although a scuba diver must protect his skin from strong sunlight to avoid a sunburn, sunblock is not always his best option. Non-biodegradable sunblocks pollute the environment, and all sunblocks may run underwater, causing eye irritation and mask fog. When possible, divers should use protective garments instead of sunblock. When sunblock is necessary, carry baby wipes or an alternative method of removing sunblock before entering the water.

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