aerial view of beach and sun umbrellas

13 Amazing Reef Safe Sunscreens (Approved by Surfers)

Jun 7, 2018 | Lifestyle, Sustainability


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

1. What is reef safe sunscreen?

2. Why choose a reef safe sunscreen?

3. What is non-nano zinc oxide?

4. How to pick a reef safe sunscreen

5. List of reef safe sunscreen brands (Approved by surfers)


Let’s get started.


the ultimate guide to reef safe sunscreen starfish with sunscreen bottle




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What is reef safe sunscreen?


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.



Why choose a reef safe sunscreen?



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.


This algae provides corals with their color and performs vital functions. Exposure to oxybenzone causes the corals to bleach and die (Downs 2016, Danovaro 2008).


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.


Health concerns

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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What is non-nano zinc oxide?


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.


Jump to the list of reef-safe sunscreens


Looking for the perfect Reef-Safe sunscreen?

Grab the FREE cheatsheet!


How to pick a reef safe sunscreen



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.

Some of my faves: Raw Elements, Badger




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

1. All Good Brand


All Good is a B Corp, over 50% woman-owned, they’re a 1% for the Planet member, and they use organic and sustainable ingredients. In fact, they grow some of their own ingredients on their farm in California.

Buy it here: All Good

Price: $10-$49 (depending on size)

2. Avasol

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 

Price: $19.95

3. Badger Balm

Badger is a family owned B certified corporation and given the highest rating by EWG. They have creams, sticks, and tinted options. Read my review of this awesome company here.  

Buy it here: Badger Balm

Price: $15.99

4. Beautycounter

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

Price: $20-36

7. Manda:

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

Price: $28

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 

Price: $18.99

9. Raw Love

Raw Love is made up of yummy ingredients like shea butter, beeswax, non-nano zinc and love! Made by an avid scuba diver on Maui this sunscreen comes in plastic-free packaging.

Buy it here: Raw Love

Price: $16.99


10. Suntegrity

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

Price: $24

11. Surf Balm

Surf Balm sunscreen only has four ingredients, but lasts 80 minutes, is water resistant and reef safe.

Buy it here: Surf Balm

Price: $12.95

12. Thinksport

Thinksport sells high quality, natural, EWG approved skincare which is inexpensive and they donate 10% of your purchase to a nonprofit of your choice. They offer lotion and stick varieties.

Buy it here: Thinksport

Price: $12.99

13. TropicSport

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!

And if you want to get more gear and product reviews – and get the skinny on the eco-issues facing the ocean, sign up for my newsletter below!


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13 Amazing Reef Safe Sunscreens (Approved by Surfers)

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