Woman snorkeling underwater using the best reef safe sunscreen
It is possible to protect your skin from the sun while protecting the ocean too. Photo Israel Gil / Unsplash

Let’s face it, there is nothing better than a day out in the sun! And while it is crucial to protect your skin against harmful UV rays, it should not be at the cost of our ocean. Shopping for sunscreen in a flooded market with expensive brands, confusing labels, and scientific ingredients is overwhelming. This is why we have created a roundup of the best reef safe sunscreen to help you navigate your way around the technicalities of eco-friendly sun protection!

Jump to our Favorite Best Reef Safe Sunscreen Brands!

An Introduction To Sunscreen 

Sunscreen products prevent sunburn by protecting your skin from UVA and UVB rays. Sunscreen works in two ways: by absorbing the UV rays before they can damage the skin barrier or forming a layer and blocking the UV rays that reflect off the skin. This layer prevents sun damage and decreases your risk of skin cancer

It is easy to find sunscreen products in different forms such as sunscreen, sunblock, lotion, foundation, moisturizer, zinc, tinted creams, aerosol sprays, and more. You will find each sunscreen has either water or oil-based and a rating for SPF protection. SPF is the Sun Protection Factor, and this typically ranges from an SPF 15 to SPF 50, determining how long the product is expected to protect your skin from UVB rays. 

What Is Reef-Safe Sunscreen? 

A reef-safe sunscreen protects the fragility of the coral reefs by being better suited for the ocean environment. Currently, there is no agreed-upon definition or regulation for the term “reef-safe.” This is why we must be well informed of the ingredients and personally check the label. 

The best reef-safe sunscreen uses only physical UVA and UV filters such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Both mineral ingredients are considered safe for the reefs and work by physically blocking the skin from absorbing the sun’s rays. 

Read on to find out more. 

Why Do We Need Ocean Safe Sunscreen?

Sun protection is vital when heading out to the ocean, whether you are swimming, surfing, snorkeling, or relaxing on the sand; the sun’s UV rays are harmful to our skin. 

Sunscreen will inevitably wash off in water from the ocean or the shower, and the potentially harmful chemicals will also be left behind in the water. Scientists believe that sunscreen chemicals threaten up to 10% of the world’s coral reefs. 

Consumer purchasing of sunscreen is increasing rapidly, as is marine tourism such as scuba diving and snorkeling. Sporting events, including surfing and swimming, are popular beach activities. To be considered “sun-smart,” sunscreen is commonly applied before entering the water. 

Although there are many sunscreen varieties available in different SPF concentrations, the majority have more than 20 chemical compounds. In most cases, within twenty minutes of entering the pool or the ocean, 25% of the sunscreen applied to your skin will be released into the water. 

How Do Conventional Sunscreens Harm The Ocean? 

Conventional or non-reef-safe sunscreens typically contain harsh chemicals and ingredients small enough in size that the coral reefs absorb the particles. According to scientists, “we conclude that sunscreens, by promoting viral infection, potentially play an important role in coral bleaching in areas prone to high levels of recreational use by humans.” 

There are tourist destinations that have already banned the sale of certain sunscreens to protect the reefs. They include the US Virgin Islands, Hawaii, The Pacific Island Nation of Palau, Aruba, and Bonaire Island.

Read More: Our Guide to Scuba Diving in Palau, Micronesia 

Let’s take a look at some of the critical issues: 

  • Certain ingredients may harm the delicate ecosystem of the coral reefs.
  • Research shows that roughly 6000 tons of sunscreen wash into the reefs each
  • Baby coral exposed to oxybenzone and octinoxate exhibit signs of distress,
    which can lead to coral bleaching.
  • Coral bleaching is when corals expel the algae (zooxanthellae) living in their
    tissues, causing them to turn white; this leads to a higher risk of death due to
  • Certain ingredients found in sunscreen can harm species of marine life, including
    marine organisms and certain fish.

Bad Sunscreen Ingredients

Our skin is the largest organ in the human body, meaning it absorbs the products we use, including sunscreen. Not only is a reef-safe sunscreen a better choice for the environment, but it is likely a safer choice when it comes to our health.
When shopping for a reef-friendly sunscreen, be sure to check the packaging does not contain the following harmful ingredients:

  • Oxybenzone (disrupts coral reproduction, leads to coral bleaching)
  • Octinoxate (causes coral bleaching)
  • Octocrylene
  • 4-methyl benzylidene camphor 4MBC (an ingredient shown to cause coral bleaching which is allowed in Europe and Canada, not in the USA or Japan)
  • Homosalate
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium
  • Any form of microplastic

One major factor to consider when shopping for sunscreen is the size of the particles. When it comes to a reef-safe sunscreen, the nanoparticles play an important role. You need to look for “non-nano” to ensure the sunscreen is safe for the ocean. If the size is too small, below 100 nanometers, the reefs can easily absorb the ingredients, and this is what causes harm to the coral. 

Be sure to avoid sunscreen containing petrolatum – also called mineral oil – as it takes years to biodegrade and may be harmful to marine life. 

Reef-Friendly Sunscreen 

1 – Be mindful of a term called “greenwashing.” This is where companies make you believe they are taking care of the environment as part of a marketing strategy, and it is widely used in beauty products to mislead consumers. Labels and tag words such as eco-friendly, green, sustainable, eco, reef-safe, cruelty-free, and vegan are trending across multiple industries. It is essential to recognize if a brand is genuine. Look for certifications and always check the ingredients. 

2 – Look for a water-resistant sunscreen that does not dissolve as easily in water. It is less likely to wash off in the ocean. 

3 – Find a sunscreen that is certified biodegradable. This means it will break down safely in the water and cause less harm to the ecosystem. 

Best Reef Safe Sunscreen Brands 

Sun Bum Original SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion

Sun Bum Original is an oil-free lotion that is suitable for daily wear. It is dermatologist approved and non-comedogenic with both UVA and UVB protection. The formula is vegan, cruelty-free, and gluten-free. Sun Bum is reef-safe and is free from Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. 

Price: $$$
We love it because SPF ranges from 15 – SPF 70, meaning this range has something for everyone. It smells fantastic and is packed with nourishing Vitamin E.
Find it here

Sun Bum Mineral SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion

Another Sun Bum favorite; however, this mineral lotion is perfect for a natural look. The product is designed to sit on top of the skin and leaves a matte finish. The mineral range is also available in a Face Stick SPF 50 and a Tinted Face Sunscreen SPF 30 (fragrance-free). 

Price: $$ 
We love it because this is a new lightweight zinc-based product range. Simply apply the lotion to your skin 15 minutes before sun exposure and protect yourself naturally from the sun.
Find it Here 

Ethical Zone SPF 50 Natural Sunscreen Lotion

Ethical Zone is suitable for sensitive skin, made with pharmaceutical grade Zinc Oxide, an Australian made product. It is labeled reef-safe and ocean safe. Ethical Zone uses Certified Natural Zinc Oxide by ECOCert 2020 and certified Cruelty Free by PETA in 2020. 

Price: $$$ 
We love it because the Ethical Zone lotion is 80 min Water Resistant and it magically dries on clear, leaving behind no white tint. The natural ingredients are kind to your skin with a coconut and castor oil base and the addition of french vanilla derived from plant extracts.
Find it Here 

Amavara Mineral SPF 50 Tinted Sunscreen

This is a product designed for extreme weather conditions. It is long-lasting, water-resistant, and sweat-resistant, yet it is a breathable formula. The Amavara Mineral sunscreen has a natural tint and is made for sensitive and acne-prone skin. There is so much to admire about this product. From its vegan-friendly ingredient list to the recycled packaging, the range is never tested on animals. 

Price: $$$$ 
We love it because Amavara uses a naturally-sourced Non-Nano Zinc Oxide as the only active ingredient to protect the environment. The range includes a Tinted Moisturiser, Sunscreen Face Stick, Mineral Sunscreen, and more!
Find it Here 

Surf Dirt Original SPF 30 Eco Sunscreen

A premium sunscreen made for the ocean, Surf Dirt is a fantastic sun protection product. It has an SPF 30 and a natural tint from the mineral base ingredients. The new non-nano 23% Zinc Oxide is reef-safe and water-resistant. The sunscreen acts as a physical barrier to the sun by remaining on the skin’s surface.

Price: $$$$$
We love it because The eco-friendly bamboo container is perfect for a day at the beach and traveling. Plus, Surf Dirt contains nourishing antioxidants and food-derived ingredients such as coconut, avocado, and jojoba oil to protect your skin.
Find it Here 

Final Thoughts 

It is a good idea to always use high-quality sun protection, including but not limited to a high SPF sunscreen. The good news is that there are many eco-friendly, low-toxic sunscreens available that are both affordable and kind to your skin. 

We hope this article has inspired you to try out a reef-safe option next time you are at the beach.