The Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens

Recently, I wrote an article for Tripsavvy about 10 ways to protect coral reefs while traveling. Now, before you head for the beach, let’s talk about sunscreen. When you’re swimming in the ocean, it’s important to know that the sunscreen you’re using could be damaging our aquatic life and coral reefs. So how do you choose a reef-safe sunscreen? Allow me to bestow a little knowledge about deciphering reef-safe labels, as many sunscreens deceive consumers with false promises. To start, let’s talk about WHY you should choose a reef-safe sunscreen.


When it comes to the term “reef-safe,” brands are generally referring to a sunscreen that is free of specific active ingredients that are toxic to corals and other marine life. Today, one of the most popular active ingredients found in sunscreens is known as Oxybenzone. The Center for Disease Control’s fourth national report on human exposure to environmental chemicals demonstrated that approximately 97% of the people tested have oxybenzone present in their urine, and independent scientists have reported various concentrations in waterways and fish worldwide. When a coral spawns, for example, it releases gametes (a mixture of eggs and sperm) that will grow 10 times too fast and ultimately kill the coral before it has a chance to attach to a structure and grow. This ingredient is also believed to cause reproductive issues in fish, damage sea urchins, and accumulate in the tissues of dolphins.


Oxybenzone can also react with chlorine, producing hazardous by-products that can concentrate in swimming pools and wastewater treatment plants. Oxybenzone has been reported to produce contact and photo contact allergy reactions, implemented as a possible endocrine disruptor and has been linked to Hirschsprung’s disease. When applied topically, UV filters, such as oxybenzone, are absorbed through the skin, metabolized, and excreted primarily through the urine. The last time the FDA took a look into how safe these sunscreen active ingredients are was in 1970. Around the time Oxybenzone was first introduced. Coincidently since 1970, there’s been a dramatic increase in skin cancer. Although there is not enough conclusive evidence to prove these chemicals cause cancer, it’s certainly an unusual coincidence. Since the rise in availability of more effective sunscreen actives, such as Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, serious doubts about the relative prevention benefit of sunscreens containing oxybenzone must be raised and compared with the potential negative health and environmental effects caused by the accumulation of this and other chemicals in the ecosystem. Of course, Oxybenzone is not the only chemical in sunscreen you should avoid, you’ll also want to avoid Octinoxate, Avobenzone, Octocrylene, Nano Particles, 


There are generally two types of sunscreens, chemical and physical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreen (like Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Avobenzone) takes time to react with the skin to protect it, however, it doesn’t fair well against strong sun exposure. Have you ever applied sunscreen all day at the beach and STILL got burnt? Chemical sunscreens could be why. Physical sunscreens—or mineral sunscreen (like Zinc and Titanium Dioxide)—on the other hand, acts as a physical barrier between the sun and the skin and blocks harmful UVA AND UVB rays. Physical sunscreens are reef-safe AND protect you from the sun better than chemical sunscreens. So when looking for the best reef-safe options for your next beach day, choose a 100% mineral sunscreen containing Zinc and/or Titanium Dioxide. 


In conclusion…

  1. New research finds that ingredients in sunscreen are absorbed into the body and can even build up over time.
  2. Some of these ingredients may affect your health.
  3. The FDA is currently reviewing the safety of many of these chemicals, but sunscreen still meets current standards for safety.
  4. Experts say the benefits of using sunscreen far outweigh any risks that some ingredients that block UV light may present. So you should wear sunscreen regardless. Oxybenzone is better than nothing. If you’re at the beach and apply oxybenzone, try to avoid swimming if at all possible. 
  5. When looking for the best reef-safe option for your next beach day, choose a 100% mineral sunscreen containing Zinc and/or Titanium Dioxide. 


When looking for reef-safe sunscreens, read the label! If it contains Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, or Avobenzone it’s not reef-safe. While Avobenzone is typically paraded as reef-safe,  it’s still a chemical sunscreen and is believed to possibly be toxic to fish. Plus, with better options out there (aka mineral sunscreens), I’ll pass on Avobenzone.


The Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens


Cerave Hydrating Sunscreen Body Lotion, SPF 30, $17.99

You can buy this sunscreen at Ulta or CVS and other prominent drug stores, which is a huge plus for me. To be honest, this sunscreen leaves me looking like Casper the ghost. Major white-cast but it also has super long-stay power. I don’t feel the need to constantly re-apply and I know it’s protecting my skin, to quote Shakira, “Whenever, wherever!” And to be honest, it’s a mineral sunscreen so…we’re meant to be together.


Epicuren Zinc Oxide Sunscreen, SPF 27, $30.10

Epicuren is honest to god one of my favorite skincare brands on the planet! Between the company’s ethical practices, transparency, and science-based research, all of their products are the real deal. This mineral sunscreen is no exception! Although it does initially apply thick and white, it can be rubbed in well which is a big plus if the white-cast bothers you. You do have to re-apply every 80 minutes or so, especially after swimming, but it definitely gets the job done. I also use their tinted mineral sunscreen, literally every day, which is just as amazing.


Stream2Sea Reef Safe Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30, $16.95

The absolute holy grail when it comes to an ethical company. Completely designed with coral reefs in mind, I was initially introduced to this brand at the Coral Restoration Foundation in Key Largo. This formula rubs in so well, the tinted sunscreen is just as fab, and lasts for 80 min or so in the water. Plus, all of the packaging is made from EcoConscious sugarcane resin tubes. You can check their website for everything you need to know about sunscreen ingredients as well as news/updates on protecting our reefs.


Australian Gold Botanical Sunscreen Mineral Lotion, SPF 30, $11.62

This is a great drugstore buy if you’re on a budget! It’s affordable and it works so well! Although this brand sells a variety of sun products, their botanical line of physical sunscreens is mineral-based. This formula rubs in extremely well and works for 80 minutes or so in the water. You can buy it from Amazon, Ulta, and drugstores like CVS.


Garden Goddess Sport, SPF 50, $12.99

Another great reef-safe sunscreen. Made with Zinc Oxide and Titanium dioxide, you can find Goddess Garden in Target, on Amazon, and Whole Foods. I bought mine from Whole Foods and it blends into the skin decently well and has a long staying power. Great for water sports and long days on the beach.


Raw Elements Face and Body Certified Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30, $17.49

Personally, I haven’t tried this one but have several friends who recommend it. I love that it comes in a reusable tin which makes it extremely sustainable. Plus reef-friendly ingredients, non-nano zinc oxide, and its formulated with cocoa and mango butter! Sounds like a winning combo to me! *Adds to cart*


There are a few other honorable mentions out there but the best way to guarantee a sunscreen is reef-safe is to make sure the product contains only Zinc or Titanium Dioxide. There are other mineral sunscreens like Supergoop! and Elta MD that are widely popular but many of their products contain the previously mentioned ingredients and are potentially harmful to our coral reefs. With better options to choose from, like the six mentioned above, it’s an easy choice for me. Safer ingredients and a step forward in the right direction for our planet. It’s my dream that eventually these toxic chemical sunscreens will be banned by governments. In fact, in 2021 Hawaii will be the first to ban sunscreens like Oxybenzone. Hopefully, soon other states will begin to follow suit.

Ocean Blue Serif Pinterest Graphic

Stay salty,




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