A step-by-step best reef safe sunscreen brands guide that will help you to understand why chemical sunscreens are dangerous, what ingredients to avoid and what are safe to use. Coral reefs are in danger all over the world and beside global warming and rising sea temperatures, toxic sunscreen ingredients have significant impact on marine life too. Since scientists proved that chemicals are linked to coral bleaching, marine biologists and environmentalists urge authorities to come up with solution. The Hawaii sunscreen ban is a breakthrough in 2018 meaning sunscreen with oxybenzone and octinoxate will be on the Hawaii sunscreen ban list from 2021. You might have a lot of questions in this topic like what type of sunscreen is eco-friendly, what are the dangerous ingredients or what is a safe sunscreen for kids and we are here to help you with the answers!
- 1 Why use reef safe sunscreen?
- 2 What sunscreen ingredients are dangerous?
- 3 Reef safe sunscreen ingredients
- 4 The 10 best reef safe sunscreen brands
- 5 Safe sunscreen for babies
- 6 Reef safe sunscreen additional information
Why use reef safe sunscreen?
The whole world relies on coral reefs for various reasons like coastal protection, food or livelihood. They are the most diverse and oldest ecosystems providing home to thousands of different marine species. Although corals seem to be extremely resilient to climate changes, the threats to reefs are bigger than ever before. Coral reef dangers are mostly human-related activities like carbon emissions, overfishing, coastal runoff, plastic pollution, and chemicals effects that includes sunscreens too. You might ask how that little tube of sunscreen causes such a bad damage on the reefs but knowing that an estimated 8-14.000 tons of sunscreen enter the world oceans annually, the danger is beyond doubt. It is proven that common sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate are responsible for DNA deformities and coral bleaching. Moreover, dangerous sunscreen ingredients are not only harmful to the environment but for your body too. Common sunscreen chemicals may cause severe allergic reactions and hormone disruption according to EWG non-profit Environmental Working Group. By using reef safe sunscreen for snorkeling and other water activities, you protect your body and the ocean at the same time.
Tip: If you read some of our other UV protection related articles you might know that our best recommendation is to cover your body with sun protective clothing on land and while snorkeling too. Like this, you can skip or at least minimize using sunscreen and leave less impact on nature.
What sunscreen ingredients are dangerous?
Due to the latest hype around reef safe sunscreens, it became part of the marketing strategy to advertise sun care products as ocean-friendly but in fact, not all of them safe for corals. After the intense media communication, many of us know that a reef friendly sunscreen must be oxybenzone free as, but there are some other bad ingredients too.
Ingredients to avoid in sunscreen:
- oxybenzone (knows as benzophenone-3 too)
- octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnate)
- avobenzone (benzophenone)
Additionally, a reef sunscreen must be non-nano, paraben free and lack of the following chemicals: Sodium lauryl sulfate, Sodium Laureth Sulfate, Retinyl Palmitate, Phthalates, Cyclomethicone, Formaldehyde and Octocrylene just to mention typical bad cosmetic product ingredients.
Oxybenzone and octinoxate effects
Common harmful sunscreen ingredients that have significant impact on coral reefs, listed as direct cause for coral bleaching according to scientists.
Oxybenzone: a general component of sunscreen that provides broad-spectrum UV rays coverage. It is toxic to coral larva especially to juveniles by disrupting the symbiosis between the coral and algae. As an irritant, it can cause allergies and by penetrating the skin results chemicals circulation in the bloodstream (97 % of the American have oxybenzone in their body)
Octinoxate: widely used UV filter. It is absorbed through the skin and can mimic hormones. Oestrogen hormone increase, thyroid fluctuation, and reproductive system diseases are the most common mentioned risks of using sun care products that contain octinoxate. And least but not last, it is linked to coral bleaching even at very low concentration.
Reef safe sunscreen ingredients
Ocean-friendly sunscreens contain mineral UV filters Zinc oxide and/or Titanium dioxide instead of chemicals. Mineral based sunscreen does not penetrate the skin but builds a layer that reflects UV rays like a mirror. Sunscreens with mineral ingredients provide strong UV protection with less health concerns. EWG also recommends Zinc Oxide containing sun lotions as reef safe sunscreen brands for snorkeling, diving or beach activities.
Adding mineral UV filter to a sun lotion is just half of the solution. In order to be reef safe, the sunscreen must labeled as non-nano too!
What is non-nano sunscreen?
According to EU definition, non-nano particle means that the size is bigger than 100 nm, the Australian rule indicates that more than 90% of the molecules are above 100 nm in a non-nano product. The biggest health concern regarding nano parts is that they can get into the body via penetration or inhalation, but scientists did not prove harmful effects yet.
Although nano Zinc oxide or Titanium dioxide are not considered to cause health issues by human but can be ingested by corals and fish resulting disorders, that’s why buy only non-nano sunscreen!
The 10 best reef safe sunscreen brands
Here are some of the best oxybenzone-free sunscreen brands that use non-nano Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide as active ingredient as well as considered safe-to-use use by EWG:
1. ThinkBaby Safe sunscreen SPF50+
Mineral based reef safe sunscreen that is free of oxybenzone, avobenzone, and chemical UV blocks. Rated as one of the most recommended non-toxic sun lotion by EWG. ThinkBaby and ThinkSport sun care products don’t contain parabens nor phthalates and use non-nano Zinc oxide, perfect for sensitive skin too. Customers find it easy to apply with minimal whitening effect. Like the content, also ThinkBaby packaging is environmentally safe.
2. Tropical Sands All Natural SPF30
100% eco-friendly broad spectrum reef safe sunscreen made with antioxidant green tea and 100-200 nm Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide. Can be used in areas where national park service accepts only biodegradable sunscreen. Tropical Sands sunscreen contains natural ingredients that are recommended by National Geographic and PADI based on original Mexitan formula. Chemical fragrance-free, paraben free, non-allergenic product.
3. Kokua Hawaiian Natural Zinc reef safe sunscreen SPF50
Original Hawaiian non-nano Zinc oxide reef safe sunscreen which is ideal face and body, safe for kids and babies too thanks to hypoallergenic features. Oxybenzone free non-sticky formula that absorbs well while moisturizing the skin. Kokua Hawaii sunscreen contains 23 antioxidant natural ingredients like spirulina, Kukui Nut and macadamia oil, Konared Coffee fruit extract, noni juice etc… A light vanilla-coconut scent will provide you the feeling being in Hawaii every time you apply this natural sunscreen. Kokua enjoys EWG rating best reef safe sunscreen for snorkeling or any water activities.
4. Manda organic sun paste
Made with high-quality food-grade organic ingredients (Coconut oil, beeswax, cocoa butter, shea butter, cocoa powder, cinnamon oil) with non-nano zinc oxide and high antioxidant, anti-bacterial, anti-aging thanaka which is a natural cosmetic used by Burmese. Manda sun paste SPF50 offers an effective sun protection not only at the beach but while hiking, running or cycling too.
5. All Good organic sunscreen butter
Back to nature and skip all the unnecessary! All Good organic sun protection contains only 6 ingredients like organic coconut oil, beeswax, jojoba oil infused with calendula and Vitamin E plus non-nano Zinc Oxide and miss toxic preservatives! All Good reef safe sunscreen butter comes in a pocket size metal container, water resistant up to 80 minutes, offers UVA/UVB Broad Spectrum Protection and it is mentioned among the Top Safe Sunscreens by EWG!
6. Badger Tinted sunscreen SPF30
Unscented nano-zinc sunscreen with mineral tint in order to minimize white effect on skin made with natural ingredients (beeswax, sunflower oil) and contains Vitamin E to hydrate the skin. A biodegradable product that is safe for the ocean and for the body as well.
7. Raw Elements Certified natural sunscreen SPF30
EWG top rated natural reef safe sunscreen for snorkeling, surfing, kayaking or just for a worry-free beach day. Raw Elements sunscreen contains 97% organic ingredients and natural oils that moisturize the skin. Vitamins and minerals offer extra protection against salt and wind and make the product safe for kids and sensitive skin adults too.
8. Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc sunscreen SPF30
Prevent sunburn with this fragrance-free clear Zinc Babo sunscreen. Thanks to the organic oil content it helps to keep the skin hydrated and minimizing zinc drying properties. Moreover, shea butter, calendula, and green tea extract help to treat acne spots. An effective yet hypoallergenic sunblock that is suitable for sensitive baby skin and for adults as well.
9. Goddess Garden Mineral sunscreen SPF30
Coral reef safe sunscreen that offers powerful sun protection with organic ingredients like coconut oil and sunflower oil and light lavender scent. Synthetic chemical-free, GMO-free, non-nano Titanium dioxide Zinc oxide and formula. Goddess Garden is committed for sustainability and for creating low carbon footprint while providing highest quality reef safe sunscreen products.
10. Stream2sea biodegradable sunscreen tinted SPF30
Proven reef-safe eco-friendly and biodegradable sun care and body care products with antioxidant green tea and olive leaf formula. Stream2Sea sun lotions are safe for fresh and saltwater species, offer both UVA and UVB protection and come in plastic-free tubes. Fast-absorbing non-greasy formula with non-nano titanium dioxide.
Note on Sun Bum sunscreen
Being Sun Bum is a widely used sun protection brand, we thought we have to provide information about it. There is mixed information available on Sun Bum sunscreen products on the internet and it seems customers are still confused if Sun Bum is reef safe or not. Although Sun Bum sunscreens are labeled as reef-friendly, after reviewing the ingredients we can’t confirm 100% that Sun Bum is reef safe. It is true that Sun Bum original sun care products are Oxybenzone-free but contain Avobenzone and Octocrylene that are both listed as dangerous ingredients. Sun Bum mineral sunscreens have Nano Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide which as mentioned can be harmful to corals.
Safe sunscreen for babies
Shocking fact is that childhood sunburn can double skin cancer risk so sun protection for babies is a must at all time! Infants younger than 6 months are not protected by melanin that’s why keeping them away from direct sunlight and covering their body with UV protective clothing is crucial. Best to give them a hat and sunglasses too and apply sunscreen to the non-covered areas! Knowing that how misleading can be the information on eco-friendly sun care products, it is even a bigger challenge to find safe sunscreen for kids delicate skin.
These are 4 of the best safe sunscreen for kids and babies, all enjoy EWG recommendation:
- Badger Baby sunscreen SPF30
- Blue Lizard Baby Australian sunscreen
- All Good Natural Kids sun lotion
- Adorable Baby All Natural Sunscreen
Reef safe sunscreen additional information
Sun protection is very diversified topic and each answer brings up additional questions. However, we cannot cover all but here are some of the most common reef safe sunscreen related questions that can help you to find the best sun protection.
Titanium dioxide vs Zinc oxide – Which is better?
Mineral sun protection products contain Titanium Dioxide or Zinc oxide or both as active physical ingredient. As mentioned, they don’t penetrate the skin but stay on its surface working like a mirror that reflects light. Generally, Zinc oxide offer a better protection, more effective against long-wave UVA rays than Titanium dioxide as well as it is noncomedogenic and antimicrobial. Titanium Dioxide blocks UVB but not the full spectrum of UVA rays. It can be a good choice for those who cannot use Zinc containing products due to allergy. Sensitivity tests are recommended before applying mineral sunscreen on the whole body.
The most common negative feedback on mineral sunscreen without nanoparticles is the whitish layer that it leaves on the skin. To avoid this and make the product more-user-friendly, companies often use nano Zinc in sunscreens. This can minimize the whitening effect but at the same time, it is not safe for corals. When buying a reef safe sunscreen search the non-nano label on it that guarantees that the mineral ingredients are safe for corals and the ocean. If you learn how to apply your mineral sunscreen, the white effect isn’t be so bad but will make you satisfied you chose an eco-friendly solution.
How to use a reef safe sunscreen?
Mineral sun care products work physically which means you should cover the skin to get protection. With this in mind, you can see the whitening effect as an upside since you will always know where you applied enough sun lotion and where you need more. Zinc oxide sunscreen might feel dry compared to a classic one, so it is a little trick to put some light hydration crème on your skin first (but it is not a must). To apply the sunscreen, squeeze a small amount first on the palm of your hand, spread it on the areas you want to cover and rub in until you get a thin but continuous coverage. Don’t worry, if you rub in the sunscreen thoroughly the white effect will fade in about 15 minutes. Remember to reapply it every 40-80 minutes depending on your activity and brand instructions.
Why don’t use spray sunscreen?
It became a trend lately choosing sunscreen aerosols because of the easy application but scientists and organizations do not recommend them.
These are the main reasons why you should avoid spray sunscreens:
- studies prove that only about 30% of the recommended amount of sun protection used when applying aerosol resulting inadequate
- bigger concern is that you might inhale the tiny particles which are even more dangerous than penetration through skin
- spray sunscreen might be flammable (although sunscreen itself not flammable, chemicals used in sprays like alcohol, propane, hydrocarbons etc… are, just think about hairsprays)
The best is to buy mineral based eco-friendly sunscreen in lotion or paste form!
Anett fell in love with the ocean immediately when she put her head underwater in the Red Sea back in 2010. Discovering megacities is not her style but getting lost in tiny coastal villages, capturing the beauty of the sea while snorkeling. Wherever she goes, she takes her mask, fins and underwater camera with her. She has a big interest in exploring the world’s last hidden underwater paradises and marine conservation. She hopes to inspire people to protect our oceans by sharing her underwater stories. Find her photos on @anett.szaszi Instagram too!