Your Guide to Buying Reef-Safe Sunscreen

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There's been a lot of buzz about reef-safe sunscreen lately. You even may have heard about destinations like Hawaii and Palau banning certain sunscreens in an effort to protect their reefs. As concern around the environmental impact of sunscreen grows, more and more brands are popping up with "reef-safe" sunscreen formulas. But what does that term really mean? How can some sunscreens harm coral reefs and how do you know if your sunscreen is truly safe?

Why use reef-safe sunscreen?

Sunscreen is important for protecting our skin from sunburns, skin cancer, and premature aging. We’ve always been encouraged to wear sunscreen, to slather it on in copious amounts, if anything, we don’t use enough. But can something that has always seemed so good for us actually be harming the environment?

Unfortunately, some of the most common chemicals in sunscreens (such as oxybenzone and octinoxate) can cause DNA damage to corals and contribute to coral bleaching. One oft-cited 2015 study showed that concentrations as low as one drop of oxybenzone in 6-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools can already be harmful to corals. 

We are huge ocean lovers so imagine our horror when we found out that anytime we were swimming, snorkeling or diving, our sunscreen was damaging these beautiful yet fragile ecosystems! An estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the oceans each year. With the majority of that sunscreen containing Oxybenzone and other dangerous chemicals, it’s no wonder that legislations are forcing a change. Yes, there are many environmental factors threatening our world’s coral reefs today, and no, removing sunscreen from the equation alone won’t save our oceans. But changing up our sunscreen is one of the easiest ways to help and is at least a step in the right direction!

Should you use reef-safe sunscreen if you’re not swimming in the ocean?

You should still use reef-safe sunscreen even when you're not swimming or anywhere near the ocean. When you shower or throw the used bottles away, the chemicals in your sunscreen could still end up in waterways that then feed into the ocean. Also, channeling your consumer dollars to companies that care about the ocean will encourage more companies to follow suit. 

 
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How does reef-safe sunscreen work?

There are two types of sunscreens: physical (or mineral) sunscreens and chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens contain a range of chemicals including oxybenzone and octinoxate. These chemicals penetrate your skin where they absorb UV rays, transforming their energy into heat. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain the minerals zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide. These minerals sit on top of your skin and reflect the UV rays that hit them. Physical sunscreens are generally considered to be safer for corals, marine life, and humans than chemical ones, but there’s still more you need to watch out for!

How to tell if your sunscreen is reef-safe?

There are no regulations on plastering the term “reef-safe” on a bottle of sunscreen so many sunscreens that brand themselves as reef-safe might not be safe at all. Here are a few things to look for when evaluating reef-friendly sunscreens:

  1. Check that the active ingredients contain non-nano zinc oxide and/or non-nano titanium dioxide. These are the key ingredients in physical sunscreens. If they are in nano form, they can still be absorbed by corals, so be sure to avoid any nanoparticles!

  2. Double check that no other ingredients are listed under the active ingredients. Avoid oxybenzone or anything else that sounds like a chemical. An effective physical sunscreen only requires zinc oxide.

  3. Look for SPF 30 or more. The most important thing is that your sunscreen actually protects you from the sun! Remember that the SPF scale is not linear. SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% and SPF 50 blocks 98%. No sunscreen can protect against 100% of UVB rays so going any over SPF 50 won’t give you significantly more protection. You should also make sure that the sunscreen has some protection against UVA rays as well (look for the words broad-spectrum) as those are just as dangerous as UVB rays and are not included in the SPF rating.

  4. Check the inactive ingredients. Avoid any chemicals or formulas that aren’t biodegradable. If you’re unsure about what some of the ingredients are, you can use a tool like this fun cosmetic ingredient analyzer.

  5. Bonus points for a water-resistant formula. Not only will less product wash off in the ocean, but you also won’t have to reapply your sunscreen as frequently.

  6. Avoid plastic packaging. This is a hard one but it's possible! A vast majority of “reef-safe” sunscreens still come in plastic bottles, which we all know can threaten marine life. Several reef-friendly sunscreen brands now use reusable metal tins or biodegradable tubes as packaging. Go the extra mile and make sure that the packaging is as reef-safe as its contents.

Looking for other sustainable travel tips? Check out How to Use Less Plastic When You Travel

 
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The Best Reef-Safe Sunscreen Brands

After evaluating over 30 sunscreens that claim to be reef-safe with the criteria mentioned above, here are our favorites.

Raw Elements

 
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This SPF 30 face and body sunscreen is made with non-nano zinc oxide and certified organic ingredients. It’s cruelty free, has broad spectrum protection and is water resistant for up to 80 minutes. Their sunscreen paste comes in a reusable aluminum tin, but for those who prefer a more runny formula, Raw Elements has liquid body sunscreens as well (packaged in recyclable plastic bottles).

Find it on Amazon, $17.49

Avasol

 
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These SPF 50+ face sunscreen sticks come in a variety of shades, so they won’t leave you with the white cast common to other mineral sunscreens. The sunscreen has all the good stuff: no nanoparticles, organic ingredients, broad spectrum protection, water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and biodegradable packaging made from recycled paper! If you’re not a fan of sunscreen sticks, they also have a liquid formula, which come in refillable aluminum bottles.

Find it on avasol.com, $19.95

All Good

 
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This sunscreen is made with only 6 ingredients: Non nano zinc oxide, coconut oil, beeswax, calendula flowers, jojoba oil, and vitamin E. Yet, this simple formula is just as effective as any other sunscreen. It offers SPF 50+ and broad spectrum protection and is water resistant for up to 80 minutes. Toss in some bonus points for the aluminum tin packaging and this sunscreen is all good.

Find it on Amazon, $10.99

EiR NYC

 
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This sunscreen is another simple formula with only 6 ingredients: non-nano zinc oxide, beeswax, cocoa butter, coconut oil, cocoa powder, vitamin E and tea tree oil. Their SPF 30 surf mud comes in an aluminum tin but they also sell an SPF 50 tinted face stick that comes in a biodegradable tube.

Find it on Amazon, $24

Where is Chemical Sunscreen Banned?

Here are some of the most popular destinations (and stores) that have decided to ban the sale of chemical sunscreens:

  • In May 2018, the state of Hawaii banned the sale of all sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. (Effective 2021)

  • Shortly after, the Caribbean island of Bonaire enacted a similar ban on the two ingredients. (Effective 2021)

  • In October 2018, the Pacific nation of Palau took it a step farther by banning ten chemicals commonly found in sunscreens and skincare products. (Effective 2020)

  • In February 2019, Key West, a U.S. island city in Florida, voted for a similar ban on sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate. (Effective 2021)

  • REI has also pledged to stop carrying sunscreens containing oxybenzone. (Effective 2020)

Final thoughts about reef-safe sunscreen

There are thousands of sunscreens out there, but only one planet. It seems like a no brainer to switch to a more reef-friendly brand of sunscreen for the sake of our oceans. But here's the catch: no sunscreen is guaranteed to be 100% reef-safe. With 8 billion people on the planet, any ingredient we use that widely could have adverse effects. Research is constantly coming out with new claims of different ingredients being dangerous.

While there’s currently no evidence that mineral sunscreens are harmful to marine life, the safest thing to do is to limit your use of sunscreen to when you really need it. Could you cover up with clothing, hats, and sunglasses and only use sunscreen on the remaining exposed parts of your body? Do you really need to put on sunscreen when you’re diving 30 meters under water? It’s always important to consider the impact of products that you’re putting on your body, even beyond sunscreen and to always be learning about more eco-friendly alternatives!

 
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Are you using a reef-safe sunscreen or have you thought about making the switch? We’d love to hear about your experience!