13 Amazing Reef Safe Sunscreens (Approved by Surfers)
Is your sunscreen killing coral reefs?
Have you noticed headlines like this popping up everywhere? Or maybe you’ve seen new reef safe sunscreen products sprouting up on the store shelves.
The recent news that Hawaii is banning the sale of sunscreens containing the ingredients: oxybenzone and octinoxate – chemicals that are harmful to corals – has brought a lot of attention to the environmental impact of sunscreen and the need for reef safe sunscreen.
If you can’t imagine going to Hawaii without sunscreen, don’t fret. It’s not about giving up sunscreen completely. It’s about choosing a better reef safe sunscreen.
Reef safe sunscreens are a little different from the traditional sunscreens you may be accustomed to. But choosing a reef safe sunscreen is easy — if you know what to look for.
Here is a quick rundown of what reef safe sunscreen is, why you should be using one and some great brands to try.
Reef safe sunscreen – the ultimate guide
5. List of reef safe sunscreen brands (Approved by surfers)
Let’s get started.
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Chemical vs physical sunscreen
Most sunscreens on the market are chemical sunscreens. Typically they contain some of the following ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. When you apply these sunscreens, the chemicals penetrate your skin and those chemicals absorb and filter UVA and UVB rays from the sun.
Reef safe sunscreen uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as a physical barrier on your skin which reflects the sun’s rays. These mineral sunscreens are better for the environment (and probably for your health too!) because they provide sun protection, but don’t contain the harmful chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Effects on corals
An astonishing 14,000 tons of sunscreen gets washed off our bodies and into oceans near coral reefs each year. The chemicals in traditional sunscreen that protect you from cancer have been shown to be toxic to the algae that live within corals.
And it doesn’t take much of these chemicals to cause problems for corals. In fact, according to Craig Downs, Executive Director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, “oxybenzone can cause an adverse effect in coral at 62 parts per trillion. That is equivalent to one drop of water in 6 1/2 Olympic swimming pools.”
Concerned about the effect of sunscreen from its 8 million visitors per year on its already stressed coral reefs, Hawaii became the first state to pass a bill banning sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate in May of 2018. The law will go into effect on Jan 1, 2021.
There is also some concern about the effect of the chemicals in traditional sunscreens on human health. High levels of oxybenzone have been found in human bloodstreams among people who use products containing the chemical.
There is also some evidence linking oxybenzone to lower testosterone, allergic skin reactions and birth outcomes (see the citations in this article by the Environmental Working Group).
This area of research is fairly new and more studies are needed to have conclusive evidence of the effect of these chemicals on human health.
In contrast, since reef safe sunscreens are physical sunscreens — they don’t penetrate your skin – there is less worry about hormonal issues.
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Reef safe sunscreens made from zinc oxide are the thick white sunblocks you see on the noses of lifeguards in 80’s films. In recent years, advances in using nanoparticles have made zinc-based sunscreens more transparent and easier to spread, but may provide less defense against UVA.
When shopping for a zinc oxide sunscreen, you will likely come across sunscreens advertised as non-nano zinc products. Non-nano refers to the size of the zinc particles in the sunscreen – specifically, these sunscreens use zinc particles greater than 100 nanometers in size.
Why choose non-nano zinc?
When your mineral sunscreen washes off the particles drop to the seafloor into the sediment. It is thought that nanoparticles (< 100 nanometers in size) can be ingested by corals.
So the current recommendation is to use non-nano mineral sunscreens. However, there is still a lot to learn about the effects of nano and non-nano particles on the environment.
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1. Check the ingredients
The term “reef safe” is not regulated, so you can’t always believe it when you see it on a label. You have to take a quick peek at the ingredients.
Look for a mineral or physical sunscreen that uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide as the main ingredient.
Avoid products with oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. Some sunscreens labeled as a mineral sunscreen contain both zinc oxide and UV blocking chemicals too. Avoid those ones.
All the brands listed below and on my free Reef Safe Sunscreen Cheatsheet don’t contain ingredients harmful to ocean wildlife. So you can simply pick a brand on the list.'Reef safe' on sunscreen labels isn't regulated. Take the time to check the ingredients. Learn what to look for in the Ultimate Guide to Reef Safe Sunscreen. Click To Tweet
2. Choose from stick, paste, lotion or spray
Sticks are great for convenience and easy application, especially when on the go. However, I’ve found that some sticks are very firm which makes them hard to apply.
My fave right now is the Suntegrity Sport Mineral Sun Stick. It is soft enough that it goes on easy. It’ s been my go-to all summer long.
Lotions go on smooth and are great for everyday use, especially for the face. Note that they will be a little thicker than your traditional sunscreen.
Pastes are generally in a little bowl or jar that you scoop out. These seem to be thicker and can be great for long-lasting protection during a water session.
My faves: Manda
Sprays can be easier to get more overall coverage including your arms, shoulders or other parts. Note, they do not spray on like the thin, lightweight traditional sunscreens. You still need to rub them in with your hands.
Current fave: Beauty Counter (tinted option available).
3. Choose tinted or not
Zinc based sunscreens can leave a slight white residue. Although this is wayyyy less of an issue today than lifeguards in movies from 1984 make it out to be. If you have darker skin or don’t want any trace of ghost-like paleness, opt for a tinted version. Many brands have this option now.
4. Pick your packaging
If you prefer to avoid packaging that will end up in the landfill, there are biodegradable and reusable options. Typically these are cardboard and metal, respectively. Just know that it can be a bit of a bummer if the cardboard packaging gets wet in your gear bag.
5. Opt for non-sunscreen options
Even better for the environment, minimize your sunscreen use by grabbing a rashguard or t-shirt to protect yourself from the sun.
13 Best Reef Safe & Surfer Approved Sunscreens
All the sunscreens on this list are:
- physical mineral sunscreens that contain non-nano zinc
- made from natural and/or organic ingredients
- reef-friendly & eco-friendly
- and most importantly – are tested, approved and recommended by women who surf
This well-recommended product is made in the USA, is a 1% for the Planet memebr and comes in super ocean-friendly biodegradable packaging. This one is next on my list to try!
Buy it here: Avasol
Beautycounter has a reef safe sunscreen called Counter Sun. I’ve been wearing it for a while now. The spray version works well and rubs in better than others I’ve tried. They have non-nano zinc in both stick and non-aerosol spray types.
This brand has a few more ingredients than most of the other brands on this list, but they are highly rated by EWG and the company is politically active in promoting safer ingredients in the cosmetic industry.
Buy it here: Beautycounter
This paste sunscreen by Manda uses reef-friendly, organic, natural ingredients. It uses Thanaka, a traditional sun protector sourced from a tree in Myanmar as one of its main sun-blocking elements. It also contains non-nano zinc oxide. Manda comes as a paste and is visible when you put it on.
Buy it here: Manda
5. CocoAloha Surf
This all in one fusion sunscreen is made with all natural and organic ingredients and non-nano zinc by a woman surfer in Hawaii. Buy it directly from her on Etsy.
Buy it here: CocoAloha
Price: $9.50 – $22.50
6. Jungle Mama Naturals
This all natural, organic, non-nano zinc sunscreen stick boasts long-lasting coverage (80 minutes) and comes in a plastic-free package. Jungle Mama Naturals was started by two women surfers living in Costa Rica that needed a good sunscreen and couldn’t find one locally.
Buy it here: Jungle Mamas
Price: $19.99 – $24.99
8. Raw Elements
Raw Element’s mission is “To create the safest, most effective sunscreen on the planet”. Fans of this lifeguard-created sunscreen swear that it stays on in the water. And the company also contributes to 1% For the Planet. Hawaiian Airlines has teamed up with Raw Elements and hands out free samples to passengers!
Buy it here: Raw Elements
Suntegrity offers mineral-based, award-winning sunscreens, tinted moisturizers and more. They have been featured in the “Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens” Category with a #1 Rating in the EWG’s 2013 – 2017 Sunscreen Guides.
Their Mineral Sport Stick was my go-to this past summer – perfect to keep in your bag and spread on super easily.
Buy it here: Suntegrity
Tropic sport passes the US 80-minute water-resistance test and the Australian 120-minute water-resistance test, meaning more surf time!! It also comes in recyclable packaging.
Buy it here: TropicSport
Price: $9.29 – $29.99
There you go! Thirteen awesome reef safe sunscreen brands to try this summer when you are in or on the water.
Now I want to hear from you. Do you have a preferred sunscreen brand that you love? Let me know!
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Looking for the perfect Reef-Safe sunscreen?
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