Everything You Need To Know About Reef-Safe Sunscreens — Plus The Best Ones To Buy


It shouldn't be news to you that wearing sunscreen every day is really important. But what might be news to you is that certain chemicals in sunscreen contribute to the pollution that is, in large part, responsible for killing the world’s coral reefs. The best reef-safe sunscreens are free of the chemicals that are most toxic to coral reefs and other marine life, but they don’t sacrifice things like staying power, comfort, and, most importantly, ample sun protection.

In 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two of the most common active ingredients found in chemical sunscreens due to their ability to absorb UV rays. And research shows that they’re also the two chemicals found in sunscreen and other cosmetics that are the biggest aggressors against marine life. A 2016 study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), for instance, found that oxybenzone can adversely affect developing coral in four major ways: It makes coral more vulnerable to bleaching; it can damage coral DNA; and it can cause abnormal skeleton growth and deformities in baby coral. (David Andrews, a senior scientist with the Environmental Working Group, told Huffington Post that octinoxate has similar effects on coral reef ecosystems, though fewer studies have been conducted on this chemical.)

These harmful additives usually find their way into marine ecosystems through swimmers wearing sunscreen that contain these substances. Another, less direct way: When you rinse off sunscreen in the shower, the chemical runoff that goes down the drain enters right into our waterways.

And there are other, less publicized substances in sunscreens that are potentially harmful to marine life, such as avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, benzophenone-2, parabens, nano-titanium dioxide, and nano-zinc oxide. These chemicals occasionally even show up in sunscreens that are marketed as “reef-safe.” So here, as per usual, your best course of action is not to blindly trust cosmetics labelling but to read the ingredients list yourself.

Another, less labor-intensive route is to opt for mineral sunscreens. Rather than relying on chemicals that absorb UV rays, these “physical” sunscreens contain environmentally safe, non-nano zinc oxide, which reflects UV light before it can penetrate your skin. (But checking up on the ingredients list is still a good idea; there still may be other environmentally harmful additives hiding in there.)

Or you can just opt for one of the six reef-safe sunscreens listed ahead. They’re among the relatively few sunscreens on the market that are free not only of oxybenzone and octinoxate, but most of those other, sneaky chemicals, as well. And, just as importantly, they keep your skin feeling comfortable, not at all like a grease bomb, and protected from the sun's harmful rays.

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The Overall Best Reef-Safe Sunscreen

There’s a lot to love about this Hawaiian-made mineral sunscreen. First, it has some serious protective powers: The formula contains 25% non-nano zinc oxide, which is the highest concentration available on the market. Then there’s a long list of antioxidant-rich, plant-derived ingredients (23, to be exact), many of which are locally grown. It’s safe for all skin types (including very reactive skin), barely leaves a white cast, and feels deeply moisturizing without being greasy. It’s definitely one of the more expensive sunscreens out there, but reviewers say this cult-favorite is well worth the $30 price tag.


Another Great Sunscreen Lotion For Your Body

This All Good Sport Sunscreen contains 12% non-nano zinc oxide as its only active ingredient, plus an impressive list of skin- and earth-safe inactives. There are aloe, green tea, and calendula extracts to keep skin soothed under the sun, while emollient-rich safflower seed oil, olive oil, and jojoba esters give this cream its smooth glide. Antioxidant-rich raspberry and buriti extracts provide additional sun protection, too. This sunscreen promises up to 80 minutes of UVA/UVB sun protection, but reviewers recommend reapplying more often if you’re especially prone to burns. (Though you should be reapplying often, regardless of whether you burn easily or not!)


The Best Spray-On Sunscreen For Your Body

This Sun Bum mineral sunscreen spray is one of the few truly reef-safe sunscreen sprays I’ve found — even if they don’t contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, lots of spray sunscreens contain things like homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene. Instead, this mineral sunscreen spray contains 14% reef-safe zinc oxide for up to 80 minutes of UVA/UVB sun protection.

Like the vast majority of mineral sunscreens out there, this sunscreen can leave a slight white cast after initial application. That’s due to the nature of mineral sunscreens: They provide a “shield” that sits on top of your skin, rather than absorbing into your skin like chemical sunscreens do. That said, a few reviewers have said that white tint is much less pronounced here than with other mineral sunscreens.


The Best Face Sunscreen For Sensitive Skin

It can be a serious struggle to find a face sunscreen that won’t cause breakouts, irritation, or general discomfort for people with sensitive skin — let alone a face sunscreen that’s totally free of potential environmental toxins. But this Blue Lizard Sensitive Face Mineral Sunscreen ticks all those boxes. The non-comedogenic, fragrance-free formula contains reef-safe zinc oxide and titanium dioxide for sun protection, plus hyaluronic acid for grease-free hydration and antioxidant-packed green tea. Just make sure to rub this in well to fade its faint white cast.


The Best Sunscreen Stick

This Amavara sunscreen stick entirely removes the hassle of applying and reapplying face sunscreen: Just rub it all over your face and move on with your life. Beyond its convenient design, reviewers like that the zinc-based formula doesn’t cause breakouts or itchiness in sensitive skin, feels lightweight and non-greasy, and works well under makeup (you can even use it as a primer.) Surfers, swimmers, and sweaty people alike confirm that this stick retains its sun-protective powers for its promised 80 minutes.


The Best Sunscreen For Babies & Kids

This Thinkbaby sunscreen is perhaps the safest sun protectant you can put on your child, right down to the BPA-, phthalate-, vinyl-free packaging. The 20% zinc-based formula is dermatologist- and pediatrician-tested, and it’s completely free of environmentally toxic chemical actives and skin irritants. It’s truly water-resistant too, so you can let your (supervised) kid play around in the water without worrying about burns for up to 80 minutes. Obviously, you don’t need to have a kid to buy this sunscreen — it’s also a great choice if you’re especially concerned about skin irritation.