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Coral reefs are one of the most diverse ecosystems on the planet and their survival is inextricably linked to our own. Not only do they provide nesting grounds and homes for hundreds of species, they also help stabilize the sea floor, prevent coastal erosion and storm surge damage, contribute to the mitigation of climate change by regulating carbon dioxide levels in the ocean, promote tourism, support your fresh seafood habit, and filter and clean seawater. And according to scientific research, they’re also being killed — and your sunscreen may be part of the problem.
“Sunscreen pollution is a real phenomenon and it poses a threat to coral reefs and aquatic life. It’s also a major factor in decreased water quality,” says Craig Downs, the study’s co-author and the executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory.
Downs says the best course of action is to exchange lotions and potions for bathing suits with sleeves and protective clothing like hats, rash guards, and swim leggings that have broad-spectrum UV protection built into the fabric as there is no 100 percent reef-safe sunscreen.
“That’s probably one of the most powerful conservation measures an individual can adopt [as] it means putting less sunscreen on your body which means less gets on the sand or in the water,” Downs says. “There are some calculations that [estimate] wearing a sun shirt instead of putting sunscreen on your torso/arms can reduce sunscreen pollution by more than 50 percent in an area. That is a major conservation victory.”
He understands that isn’t always a viable or desirable option for sun worshippers and would never advocate that people skip protecting themselves from the sun’s harmful rays, painful sunburns and skin cancer. But he says if you’re going to use sunscreen, at least make sure it doesn’t contain the worst toxic offenders, oxybenzone and octinoxate. Those ingredients have been banned in many marine preserves, Palau, the Marshall Islands, the Virgin Islands, parts of Mexico, the Florida Keys and Hawaii. (Hawaii’s law, the first statewide ban in the US, went into effect in January.)
He also cautions that you should avoid sunscreen sprays as a good portion lands on the sand, affecting both animals that nest and live in the sand like turtles, and the ocean as the high tide sweeps it into the sea.
So which sunscreen should you buy and use? Read on for more helpful tips.
How Do You Know If Sunscreen Is Reef-Safe or Reef-Friendly?
The bad news is that some companies actively try to hide, confuse, or play loose with the unregulated term reef-friendly. A reef-safe label has more legal ramifications thanks to cases like this one out of Sonoma County, Calif., and companies often have to substantiate those marketing claims. Laws like Hawaii’s and retailers like REI, which stopped carrying oxybenzone-laden sunscreens in 2020, are helping by getting products off shelves, but the onus is usually on the consumer to become an educated label reader.
Make Sure It’s Oxybenzone- and Octinoxate-Free: And just like at the grocery store, a minimal number of ingredients that sound like they were brewed in a lab is a good rule of thumb to abide by. First and foremost, say no to the Os — oxybenzone, which is also called benzophenone-3 and BP-3, and octinoxate.
Avoid Other Chemicals, Parabens and Nano-Particles: To level up your commitment to conservation, make sure sunscreens, toiletries, and cosmetics don’t contain petrolatum/mineral oil as it takes years to biodegrade and is known to be harmful to aquatic life and waterfowl, really high titanium dioxide levels, or anything on Downs’ HEL List including parabens, microplastic spheres or beads, nano-particles (as they are small enough to be consumed by coral), or para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA). Trusted third-party certifications like the seals awarded by 1% For The Planet or Downs’ strict Protect Land + Sea will also help narrow the field.
Try Mineral Sunblocks: The good news is that more companies are creating eco-conscious products than ever before, and at all price points, so doing the least harm while playing outside requires minimal effort. Generally speaking, non-nano mineral sunblocks are the way to go. They are less harmful all around and just as effective according to many dermatologists. As they’re made to sit on skin and physically block UV rays, they take a little extra elbow grease to rub in and should be reapplied every two hours.
What Are the Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens?
Want to swap out your toxic SPF? Here are some of the best eco-friendly sunscreens to help save your skin all year long.
1. Stream2Sea Sport Sunscreen
This brand earned the seal of approval from Downs and Haereticus. In short, you can feel good about dousing yourself with the water-resistant (up to 80 minutes), biodegradable, paraben-free broad spectrum sunblock before diving into the deep end of the ocean. The active ingredient is non-nano titanium dioxide while green tea, tulsi leaf, seaweed, aloe, and coconut oil make the Sport line less harsh on skin. Bonus points for using 100-percent recycled or recyclable packaging.
2. Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen
Woman-founded Supergoop’s wide selection of products comes in to save face, feet and the vast expanse in between. The brand has everything from pearlescent sunscreen that hydrates skin and acts as a makeup primer (Glow Screen) and acai-tinged lip balm, to a genius mineral powder to shade your part and exposed scalp spots (Poof). We highly recommend the Unseen Sunscreen, a broad-spectrum SPF 40 powered by zinc oxide that, despite going on white, doesn’t leave even a hint of ghostly sheen for everyday use.
3. Badger Clear Zinc SPF 40
A pioneer in the eco-friendly mineral sunscreen market since 2005, the New Hampshire-based certified B Corporation specializes in super-simple yet effective formulations that start with uncoated zinc oxide and end with high marks from the Environmental Working Group and on the Protect Land + Sea certification test. In between, you’ll find organic, non-GMO, gluten-free, and plant-based inactive ingredients like beeswax, jojoba, and other essential oils. Clear Zinc SPF 40 comes in a squeeze tube or eco-friendly tin. Borrow your children’s lotion, the SPF 40 Kids Sunscreen Cream, for the dreamy tangerine and vanilla notes.
4. Countersun Daily Sheer Defense
The clean beauty company was a loud-and-proud supporter of Hawaii’s Safer Sunscreen bill. Its sunscreen line, Countersun, is mineral-based using non-nano zinc oxide. The SPF 30 lotion version is so lightweight it can be used by everyone from babies to sufferers of sensitive skin. If you are ride or die for sprays, this is the brand to pledge allegiance to as the SPF 30 Mineral Sunscreen Mist uses a non-aerosol air-powered propellant mechanism. The line’s newest addition, the Daily Sheer Defense for Face SPF 25, is perfect for everyday protection of your moneymaker. It can be worn under makeup, hydrates with chicory root extract, and even offers protection from HEV blue light rays.
5. REN Clean Skincare Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30
This dermatologist-favorite sunblock shuns parabens, synthetic fragrances, silicones, fake coloring and mineral oils in all of its products, including this SPF 30. It’s another good, matte option for daily facial protection, fending off UVA, UVB and blue light with zinc oxide. The British company should also be commended for its longtime commitment to improving packaging. In fact, it pledged to become zero waste by the end of 2021.
6. All Good Sport Sunscreen
An active member of the Safe Sunscreen Council and 1% For The Planet, this Morro Bay, California-based woman-founded and -run company’s roll-on Sticks include non-nano zinc oxide, anti-fungal and anti-bacterial calendula grown on the company farm, buriti oil (antioxidant), shea butter and coconut oil. Prior to any vacation, pick up an Ultimate Sun Care Set, which bundles together three SPF lip balms, two SPF 30 sunscreen lotions, two SPF 50 Zinc Sun Butters, and two Sun Sticks for your face, nose, and ears.
7. Raw Love All Natural Mineral Sunscreen
Motivated by her background in ocean conservation and marine biology and a desire to live plastic-free, Jenna Davis started whipping up non-nano zinc oxide, cold-pressed organic and plant-based SPF 35 in her Maui kitchen a few years ago. Then she started selling her rockabilly mermaid-repped batches at farmer’s markets and it took off because, as it turns out, many others were looking for reef-safe broad spectrum coverage that didn’t sting their eyes, went on smoothly and was so gentle it could be used on babies. Its minty sinus-clearing scent and recyclable aluminum jars are added bonuses.
8. Suntegrity Skincare Natural Mineral Body Sunscreen
After losing her mom to skin cancer, Tricia Trimble channeled her grief into founding Suntegrity in 2010 from her Southern California apartment to offer a slew of products, including SPF 50 mineral powders and Impeccable Skin Sunscreen Foundation. All Suntegrity sunscreens start with broad spectrum-busting non-nano zinc oxide and then receive infusions of youth-preserving antioxidants. It was important to her that they also be reef-safe, vegan (save for some serums and the heavy-duty Sport line that use beeswax), safe for sensitive skin, made in the USA and cruelty-free. One of the brand’s hero products, the greaseless sweet orange-smelling SPF 30 Body Sunscreen, applies like lotion and is even a tad cooling thanks to jojoba, aloe, cucumber extract, and hyaluronic acid.
9. Kokua Sun Care Zinc Sunscreen SPF 50
This SPF 50 sunblock contains 25 percent non-nano zinc oxide for 80 minutes of water resistance, a faint scent of coconut and vanilla, and 23 antioxidants to nourish the skin, including seven superfoods sourced from Hawaiian farms like Konared coffee fruit, macadamia nut oil, plumeria, spirulina, and noni juice, thus supporting local agricultural communities. Follow up exposure with the brand’s Healing Serum. It makes use of sustainably harvested anti-inflammatory sandalwood (endemic to the Big Island) and kukui nut oil.
10. Bare Republic Mineral Sunscreen Lotion
Living up to the California company’s name, the SPF 30 Mineral Sunscreen Lotion feels barely there seconds after application, which is rare for zinc oxide-based toiletries. The white fades to nearly imperceptible, the hard-to-describe perfume is pleasant but not overpowering, and the finish far from the sticky category. Meanwhile, the brand’s Neon Sunscreen Sticks let kids and music festival goers add vibrant color and designs to their sunscreen routines. Bare Mineral also has an array of other mineral-based sunscreen sprays and creams.
11. Elina Organics Sun Day SPF 35
This non-nano zinc oxide-powered SPF created by cosmetic chemist/celebrity esthetician Elina Fedotova goes on smoothly, is free of fragrance, is blended with botanical oils and vitamins and starts working instantly. We also give Fedotova a slow clap for being one of many that urged consumers to stay out of the sun between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. and throw on protective clothing and accessories in the directions section.
12. Hello Bello Mineral Sunscreen Spray
Not only is this SPF 30 sunscreen from Kristen Bell and Dax Shephard’s company reef-friendly, paraben-free, phthalate-free, and plant-based, but it’s also a spray, which comes in a non-aerosol bottle. The push-down button system makes for a controlled delivery so it won’t end up polluting the air or the sand. The only drawback is it contains only 14 percent zinc oxide so you’ll have to reapply more frequently. Pair with the DEET-free bug repellent and there will be no end to the earth-friendly non-toxic outdoor adventures this summer.
13. C’Est Moi Sunshine Sunscreen
This non-nano zinc oxide formula comes in face stick (SPF 50) or lotion (SPF 45) form. It’s water-resistant for 40 minutes of sweating or swimming, and then you’ll need to reapply. It’s made for faces and bodies, and it also features a supplementary super fruit antioxidant blend to defend your delicate dermis from the elements. Lower 48 customers can utilize the TerraCycle C’est Moi partnership to recycle plastic packaging.
14. Earth Mama Organics Uber-Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen Lotion
Have sensitive skin? You might want to give EM’s SPF 40 Uber-Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen Lotion a swirl before your next beach outing. It was created for kids and tested by pediatricians, but the rash-calming ingredients and effects know no age limits. Thanks to relying on the force of zinc oxide to fight off the UVAs and UVBs and leaving artificial fragrances, parabens, nanoparticles, and chemical sunscreens in some other guy’s lab, Uber scored the lowest hazard rating the Environmental Working Group hands out. We’re also fans of the company’s tinted Lady Face sticks. They’re a triple threat: zinc SPF 40 sunscreen, softener (because of the shea and cocoa butter) and sheer foundation/primer that imparts a dewy look when used solo. It comes in two shades and, depending on your complexion, can be used as a makeshift bronzer, concealer or contour.
15. Babo Botanicals Zinc Sunscreen
Free of oxybenzone, octinoxate, or parabens, this non-nano zinc sunscreen from Babo Botanicals is safe for both you and the reefs. Natural ingredients like sunflower seed oil, avocado, and jojoba lead the non-greasy formula, ensuring a smooth, easy application — even on sensitive skin. Although it’s gentle, Babo’s sunscreen is quite robust with SPF 30 protection and water and sweat resistance for up to 80 minutes. We recommend it for use on the body, although it should work on faces too in case you forgot your face sunscreen.