Travel Gear

A Guide to Buying Reef-Safe Sunscreen

September 18, 2018
Coral Reef in El Nido, Philippines | A Guide to Buying Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Is your sunscreen killing the coral reefs? If you’re using a traditional chemical sunscreen, it probably is. We’re sharing which chemicals you need to avoid (basically, all of them), and what to look for in a great reef-safe sunscreen.

Before last year, I had no idea that every time I hopped into the ocean, slathered with my favorite coconut scented sunscreen, I was contributing to coral bleaching and harming the underwater ecosystem.

This last year Aaron and I spent three days in Coron, Philippines getting our PADI open water diving certification. As I was researching more about diving spots and coral reefs, I read a startling statistic: 85% of the wildlife in the Caribbean died before 2000. And according to Craig Downs, Ph.D., a forensic ecotoxicologist, it wasn’t from global warming. It was from pollution. Mostly chemicals from sunscreens washing off into the ocean when tourists went for a swim.

Since then, I’ve been both reading about and testing reef-safe sunscreens. I know that the coral, fish, plants, and animals living in the ocean aren’t just there for my enjoyment when I happen to take a dive. They’re necessary for the survival of our planet.

While buying a reef-safe sunscreen sounds like it should be a relatively simple process, I’ve found it can get a little murky as there is no official designation for something that is reef-safe.

Find a list of the best reef-safe sunscreens we love at the end of this article.

This post contains affiliate links. This means if you click on one of them, we may receive a small commission (for which we are very grateful) at no extra cost to you. We only link to products we actually like and use.

Tins of the best reef-safe sunscreen | Brands like Butterbean Organics, Raw Elements and All Good make natural, zinc oxide sunscreen that is safe for coral reefs

A Guide to buying Reef-Safe Sunscreens (that will save both your skin and the coral reefs)

Over the past year, I’ve done a bunch of research and read up on any brand I can find that claims to make natural, mineral sunscreens that are good for your skin and environmentally friendly. Due to the alarming rate of coral bleaching, there is a sense of urgency to both inform the public and create products that aren’t so harmful to the ocean ecosystems. I’m constantly discovering new brands that are labeling their products as mineral, natural, and reef-safe, which is great, as long as they are actually reef-safe. Since the goal here is to buy a product that is truly eco-friendly (and not just get the warm fuzzies), I’ve created a few rules to help you easily determine if that sunscreen in your shopping cart really is reef-safe. And thankfully, since the ingredients should be really simple, it makes it pretty easy.

The Reef-Safe Sunscreen Rules


1 No Chemicals. Period

If you want to keep this simple, your best bet is to avoid all chemicals. There has been a forty percent decline in Hawaii’s coral reefs since 2011, much of it due to pollutants in the waters like chemical sunscreens. Hawaii recently passed legislation that will outlaw any sunscreens with the worst offenders from being sold or used in the island states by 2021: oxybenzone and octinoxate. These chemicals are thought to be the biggest culprits in coral bleaching. 

Even though other chemicals like octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, avobenzone, ethilexil, and metoxi weren’t included in the Hawaii ban (yet), it doesn’t mean they’re really any better for the ocean ecosystems or for your body. The list of chemicals to avoid is endless, so if it sounds like a chemical, don’t use it. I’d rather err on the side of caution than wait until research comes out 10 years from now saying how bad chemicals like these are.

Research has shown that many traditional sunscreens contain chemicals that can be absorbed through your skin and cause harm. Oxybenzone is known to disrupt hormone processes, retinyl palmitate (a vitamin A derivative) can potentially contribute to cancer by speeding up the growth of cancerous cells, and methylisothiazolinone, another popular additive to traditional chemical sunscreens, was named “allergen of the year” by the American Contact Dermatitis Society. Whether you’re going near the ocean or not, using a mineral sunscreen is much safer for you too.

Turtle swimming along coral reef | Use reef-safe sunscreen

Do it for the turtles!

2 Only Two Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide

Now that you’ve ditched all the chemicals, look for a sunscreen that includes only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the active ingredients. These minerals create a physical barrier that protects your skin from harmful UV rays. 

Most sunscreens I’ve used are only zinc oxide and they’ve been very effective. Titanium dioxide should only be used in addition to zinc oxide, not as a standalone active ingredient. 

3 Use Only Non-nano Particles

Any particles smaller than 100 nanometers can be consumed by coral, so it’s essential to find a sunscreen that only has non-nano zinc oxide and non-nano titanium dioxide. If a sunscreen is made using tiny mineral particles, it will clog the coral pores. This will lead to coral bleaching, making nano particle mineral sunscreens just as harmful as chemical ones. 

Every mineral sunscreen I’ve used has clearly labeled the active ingredients as non-nano, so it’s not like you need to be an expert or do extensive research to figure out the exact size of the particles in the sunscreen. If it’s not labeled as such, it’s probably not and I wouldn’t buy it. 

6 Find Companies that Only Make Reef-Safe Sunscreen

The best reef-safe sunscreens I’ve used are from companies that are mission-driven; they care about the coral reefs and the underwater ecosystem and are passionate about saving them. Their company and products are first about doing good, and second about making a profit. 

4 Read ALL of the Active Ingredients

All mineral sunscreens are not created equal, so make sure you read all of the ingredients. I’ve picked up a number of bottles that are essentially a wolf in sheep’s clothing – the bottles are labeled as mineral sunscreen and highlight the fact they have zinc oxide, but when I turned the bottle over and read the ingredients, it had chemicals too.  

Perhaps the company thinks it’ll be a total knockout with both chemicals and minerals, but this is really not necessary, and obviously, not reef-safe. I’ve usually seen this with companies that make traditional chemical sunscreens, so I tend to stay away from anything made by these companies.  

Swimming along coral reefs on Kauai's Na Pali Coast

There has been a 40% decline in Hawaii’s coral reefs since 2011, much of it due to toxins in the water like chemical sunscreens

5 Check the Inactive Ingredients Too

While the active ingredients are usually the main offenders, the inactive ingredients in sunscreens can cause problems too. Avoid parabens and synthetic or unlabeled fragrances. The inactive ingredient list should be pretty short with words you can actually pronounce.  

Companies that first made traditional chemical sunscreens always seem to be a bit conflicted and not totally committed to the cause. For example, the popular company Sun Bum uses nano particles in most of their mineral sunscreens, sighting them as safe for human use and downplaying the impact on the coral reefs. Nano particles may be fine for people, but they’re not for coral reefs.

The companies I’ve included in the list below of our favorite mineral sunscreens aren’t trying to downplay inconvenient facts about their products. Most of them have great information about why reef-safe products are so necessary, and what they’re doing to help. So many of them go above and beyond just what they’re putting in their bottles and tins – they are trying to go plastic-free, use solar energy to produce their products, or they’re creating educational information to inspire others to make the needed changes that will save the reefs. While they may be for-profit companies, they’re founded by people that really care and are trying to make a difference for the world’s oceans.

7 Use SPF 30 to SPF 50

The discussion regarding the appropriate SPF isn’t unique to eco-friendly sunscreens, but I found it helpful to have a quick refresher on what SPF actually means. SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor, and most dermatologists recommend that you start at SPF 30 if you’re going to spending time out in the sun. No sunscreen can block all UVB rays, but the higher the SPF, the more UVB rays are blocked. SPF15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays and SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB ray. Studies have shown that there isn’t much of an added benefit over SPF 50, so the FDA actually put a cap on labeling. Anything above SPF 50 is labeled as SPF 50+.  

If you’re going to be outside for a long period of time, use a hat, sunglasses, and sun protective clothing in addition to a reef-safe sunscreen that is at least SPF 30. When you’re getting in the water, the less sunscreen the better no matter the kind, so a rash guard is a great option when you’re going to be snorkeling or surfing. 

And don’t forget that SPF is at its most effective for about two hours, so reapply often. If you’re going to be in the water, check your sunscreen for the water-resistant period. Most max out at 80 minutes.

Girl wearing Raw Elements Reef Safe Sunscreen in water along Kauai's Na Pali Coast

We used the Raw Elements Face + Body Sunscreen Tub all throughout our Kauai trip. I love how it makes the water bead up!

Best Overall Reef-safe Sunscreens

Living in Newport Beach, California, zinc sunscreen has long been a part of its surf and lifeguard culture, with guys and girls walking across the hot sand with a board in their hands and a white stripe of thick sunscreen paste along their nose and cheeks. Though it may not be mandatory in Southern California yet, we’ve traveled a few places this summer where biodegradable, reef-safe sunscreens are becoming the law. The chemical sunscreen ban in Hawaii does not take full effect until 2021, but I noticed that surf shops in Kauai are already replacing their old racks of Hawaiian Tropic with brands like Raw Elements and Avasol. During our trip around the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, natural, biodegradable sunscreens were mandatory for swimming in cenotes, eco-parks, and places like Akumal bay, where they are fighting to save the turtle population.

Save your skin and the environment with our picks for the best reef-safe sunscreens.


Raw Elements Face + Body Sunscreen .

Raw Elements

Face + Body Sunscreen Tub – SPF 30

.

Price: ~$19 for

3 oz on

Raw Elements website

(use code

NOMANBEFORE10

for 10%off)

Raw Elements has quickly become one of my favorite brands for eco-friendly sunscreen. The company is guided by a two-pronged mission: to create the safest, most effective sunscreen on the planet. They even recently teamed up with Hawaiian airlines for a reef preservation initiative. Raw Elements was started by a lifeguard, and they only use natural ingredients in their sunscreens.

The Face + Body Sunscreen tub has become my go-to because it’s great for, well, both face and body. When ordering from the Raw Elements website, use code NOMANBEFORE10 for 10% off. It’s also available on Amazon. It’s easy to apply and rubs in without any serious white-out. We used this tub again and again on our recent trip to Kauai, and even with that much usage, we have about half a tub left. The creams in the tubs are all pretty dense, so they’ll last you a lot longer than a similar amount of sunscreen lotion in a bottle. This formula is water resistant up to 80 minutes and worked great for long days in the sun where we went from hiking to boating to snorkeling.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 23% (non-nano)



.

All Good

Sport Sunscreen Spray – SPF 30

 

.

Price: ~$22 for 6 fl oz on Amazon

This sounds a little cheesy, but All Good is serious about being all good, from what they put in their sunscreens to how they treat their employees. They started a #ReefFriendly campaign and pledge (you can sign it here) to encourage people to commit to using reef-friendly sunscreens and support policies that ban harmful chemical sunblocks.

Every one of All Good’s sunscreens uses only non-nano Zinc Oxide, so the formulas are biodegradable and coral reef safe, including this sport spray version. A lot of zinc formulas tend to be thicker and difficult to rub in, which is probably why they were previously less popular than traditional chemical sunscreens with easier to use consistencies. But, this spray is a thinner formula that makes it easy to get a lot of coverage and rubs in really nicely. I don’t feel greasy or look like a ghost! It’s water resistant up to 80 minutes and has worked great against California’s strong mid-day sun.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 14% (non-nano)


.

All Good

Sunscreen Butter – SPF 50+

.

Price: ~$21 for 2 oz on Amazon

The All Good Sunscreen Butter comes in a small metal tub (yay for non-plastic packaging!), and it’s perfect for those spots you want to give a little extra coverage to. It has a higher SPF, and it is water resistant up to 80 minutes. I like to bring this one around to quickly reapply to my face and shoulders throughout the day.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 25% (non-nano)


.

Badger

Sport Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Cream – SPF 35

.

Price: ~$13 for 2.9 fl oz on Amazon

Badger is a small family-run business that started with making balms and lotions out of organic plant extracts, exotic oils, beeswax, and minerals to create natural and safe products to protect and treat the body. They use these same natural ingredients in their sunscreens, with most creams only including five or six ingredients. Badger makes a few variations of its sunscreen, including active, sport, and daily versions, and ones specifically for babies and kids. The ingredient list on all of them is pretty similar, but they do vary a bit with SPF, the percentage of zinc oxide, and how long they are water resistant.

This sport version is great because it’s effective, easy to apply and, water-resistant for 80 minutes.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 22.5% (non-nano)


.

Kokua Sun Care

Hawaiian Natural Zinc Sunscreen – SPF 50

.

Price: ~$30 for 3 fl. oz on Amazon

Kōkua Sun Care was created by a husband and wife team that was searching for a better solution to their suncare needs; one was a sailor, going on an around-the-world journey by catamaran where chemical sunscreens were banned because the corrode the marine plexiglass, the other was a triathlete that needed sunscreen for long days out in the sun and water.

They developed a natural zinc sunscreen that’s SPF 50, 80 minutes water resistant with seven Hawaii-grown antioxidant ingredients. This sunscreen rubs in well and has a great smell, something that a lot of zinc sunscreens don’t. You can purchase this sunscreen on Amazon, or directly from the Kokua Sun Care website (use code NOMANBEFORE20 for 20% off!)

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 25% (non-nano)

Tinted Reef Safe Sunscreen

Worried about white cast? Use a tinted sunscreen!

Best tinted reef-safe sunscreens

The non-nano zinc oxide particles, which is what makes these minerals not harmful to the coral, have a harder time rubbing into the skin. This is why white-cast is usually associated with natural, zinc oxide sunscreens. All of the sunscreens we’ve used and included on this list above rub in fairly well, so there isn’t an extreme white caste. But if you want an extra golden glow, try out one of these tinted mineral sunscreens that are still ocean-friendly.


Raw Elements Tinted Facial Moisturizer | Best Tinted Reef-Safe Sunscreens .

Raw Elements

Tinted Facial Moisturizer – SPF 30

.

Price: ~$15 for 1.8 oz on Raw Elements website

(use code NOMANBEFORE10 for 10%off)

The Raw Elements Tinted Facial Moisturizer isn’t quite as thick as the Face + Body Sunscreen tub listed above, so it slides on a little more easily.The tint blends well with skins that’s fair to dark and gives it a nice little glow. Use code NOMANBEFORE10 for 10% off when ordering from the Raw Elements website. It’s also available on Amazon.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 23% (non-nano)


Sun and Earth Natural Zinc Sunscreen | Reef-Safe Sunscreen .

Sun & Earth Natural Zinc

Tinted All Day Cream – SPF 30

.

Price: $15 for 1.7 oz on the Sun & Earth website

Sun & Earth is a small company out of Australia that lives by the mantra of making their products natural enough to eat. They take a pretty holistic approach by trying to make every part of their process environmentally friendly, from using non-plastic packaging to relying on solar power for their production process.

They currently only make tinted natural zinc sunscreen, and it comes in 3 different shades – sunny tan, earthy cocoa, and sandy light. The tub I’ve been using is tinted with real cacao powder and it really does smell good enough to eat — the only problem is that every time I put it on it makes me want chocolate!

This paste is thick, but it creates a pretty serious physical barrier so I don’t have to reapply as often as some of the thinner ones. This sunscreen can stain/discolor, so just be careful with application.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 25% (non-nano)


.

Badger

Tinted Mineral Sunscreen Cream – SPF 30

.

Price: ~$13 for 2.9 fl oz on Amazon

This Badger sunscreen has all of the great properties that the cream listed above, plus a slight tint. Note that this one is only water resistant for 40 minutes, so you’ll need to reapply more often when in water.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 18.75% (non-nano)

Boy holding Kids Badger Suncreen on the Beach | Natural Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Boy holding Kids Badger Sunscreen on the Beach | Natural Reef-Safe Suncreen

Badger makes a whole line of natural, reef-safe sunscreen, including ones just for babies and kids!

Best Reef-safe Sunscreen Sticks

Sunscreen sticks are easy to apply for small areas that need reapplication often, like your face, neck and the tops of shoulders. It’s easy to always have one in your bag, plus kids love to put them on themselves (at least mine does).


.

Babo Botanicals

Super Shield Sport Stick – SPF 50

.

Price:

~$7 for 0.6 oz on Amazon

Babo Botanicals strives to make all of their products as natural as possible so they can be used by anyone, from little babies to pregnant women. This ended up being my favorite stick sunscreen (and my son’s too) because it glides on so easily — it isn’t sticky at all. Plus, it rubs in nicely, it’s SPF 50 and water resistant for 80 minutes.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 17% (non-nano)


.

Raw Elements

Eco Stick – SPF 30

.

Price:

~$16 for 0.6 oz on Amazon

or

Raw Elements site

Another Raw Elements sunscreen! You really can’t go wrong with any of their sunscreens. This stick is smooth and creamy just like the version that comes in the tub. This also comes in a tinted version. And don’t forget to use NOMANBEFORE10 for an extra 10% off on the Raw Elements website.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 23% (non-nano)


.

Badger

Kids All Season Face Stick – SPF 35

.

Price:

~$10 for 0.65 oz on Amazon

Badger makes a sport kids version of its sunscreen that also comes in stick form. The tangerine and vanilla smell is absolutely fantastic, it reminds me of an orange creamsicle. I’d get this one just for the scent, but it’s easy to apply and works great too! Plus, it’s water resistant for 80 minutes, so great to have to quickly reapply if you’re swimming.

Active Ingredient: Zinc Oxide 22.5% (non-nano)


Avasol Zinc Sunscreen | Reef-Safe Sunscreen .

Avasol

Surfer’s Barrier Stick – SPF 30

.

Price:

~$20 for 1 oz on the Avasol website

The name of this company says it all: “Ava” is the Samoan word for respect and “Sol” is the word for the Sun, so the company name essential means “respect the sun.” Avasol’s Surfer’s Barrier Sticks allow you to enjoy the sun without getting burned by it. These sticks use plastic-free packaging and are water resistant for 80 minutes.

I haven’t used this one personally yet, but one of our guides on a recent boat tour of the Na Pali Coast in Kauai colored this over his face a few times during the tour (we were out for over 5 hours). He goes out almost every day and doesn’t get burned. It looked like it went on smooth and rubbed in easily. The sticks come in three different colors – light, tan and dark.


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A Guide to Buying Reef-Safe Sunscreen | Is your sunscreen killing the coral reefs? Until last year, I was using traditional chemical sunscreens which contribute to coral bleaching. I made the switch to natural, mineral sunscreens that are both safe for my skin and the coral reefs. Read this guide to find out how to find a reef-safe sunscreen, including a list of ones we love! | #natural #sunscreen #ecofriendly #sustainable #travel
A Guide to Buying Reef-Safe Sunscreen | Is your sunscreen killing the coral reefs? Until last year, I was using traditional chemical sunscreens which contribute to coral bleaching. I made the switch to natural, mineral sunscreens that are both safe for my skin and the coral reefs. Read this guide to find out how to find a reef-safe sunscreen, including a list of ones we love! | #natural #sunscreen #ecofriendly #sustainable #travel

Coral Reef in El Nido, Philippines | A Guide to Buying Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Coral Reef in Lombok, Indonesia | A Guide to Buying Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Have you tried a mineral, reef-safe sunscreen? Which one is your favorite?

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16 Comments

  • Reply Jenna September 18, 2018 at 2:13 pm

    What a beautiful article ! You have highlited some of my favorite sunscreens . Another company that aligns with your rules is Raw Love Sunscreen. They are plastic free and use only non nano zinc oxide . Thanks for raising awareness . Xo

    • Reply Kelly Barcus September 24, 2018 at 8:57 pm

      Hi Jenna, Thank you for the kind words! Raw Love sunscreen looks great – love that it’s non-nano zinc oxide! We’ll have to give it a try!

  • Reply Erin September 21, 2018 at 6:10 pm

    I love that you’ve written this! I’ve had skin cancer before and always wear sunscreen, but I also have a borderline obsessive love for marine life. Pinning this so I can refer back to it and really appreciate you taking the time to do all the research. It’s heartbreaking that the Hawaiian reefs have seen a decline by almost half! We have to do better for our planet.

  • Reply Emily September 21, 2018 at 8:28 pm

    Excellent comprehensive post and a very important issue! Being from Australia, I’ve always spent a lot of time in the sun, on the beach and snorkeling on the reef. I hate to think of all the times we went out lathered in sunscreen when we were kids. But we didn’t know any better. Glad to see this is gaining more traction—especially when it’s so easy to find alternatives.

    • Reply Kelly Barcus September 24, 2018 at 9:04 pm

      The best thing we can do is change what we do moving forward! And it is great that there are so many options now – makes it easy to do what’s good for both you and the reef. 🙂

  • Reply Grace Silla September 21, 2018 at 8:42 pm

    I had no idea they made tinted mineral sunscreens! Our biggest complaint with them was the ghostly appearance my husband always took on when he used them haha! You gave us some great options to work with!

    • Reply Kelly Barcus September 24, 2018 at 9:05 pm

      I don’t mind a little bit of white cast on my arms or legs, but it is really nice to have a tinted one for your face. These are all really great options! Hope you give them a try. 🙂

  • Reply Laura September 21, 2018 at 9:59 pm

    Such a good article and definitely something we all need to be so much more aware of. Thanks for highlighting some brands to check out!

    • Reply Kelly Barcus September 24, 2018 at 9:06 pm

      Thanks so much for taking the time to read it, Laura! Hope it helps you find a reef-safe sunscreen you love. 🙂

  • Reply Alyssa Belton September 22, 2018 at 4:21 am

    The fact that I am just learning about the harmful impacts of sunscreen on the reef is disturbing. This is important, and I am so grateful for this post. Also, I had no clue sunscreen came in so many smells… I thought it was always just weird sunscreen smell or children’s fruity smell. Anyways I learned a lot today. Thank you!

    • Reply Kelly Barcus September 24, 2018 at 9:08 pm

      Hey Alyssa, glad this article helped! One thing I really love about traveling is how much I learn about what’s going on in the world and how I can do my part to help take care of it. Hope this helps you find a reef-safe sunscreen that works for you!

  • Reply Janet September 24, 2018 at 6:27 pm

    This is a great article. You give extensive data and plenty of varieties. We have been divers for years and have tried to decipher the “safe sunscreen” choices with not much success. The reefs the oceans and we thank you for this article.

    • Reply Kelly Barcus September 24, 2018 at 9:13 pm

      Thanks for the note, Janet. It’s a little sad that some sunscreen companies don’t take the onus on themselves to be a little more transparent and honest with labeling. The ones we’ve included here have made a great effort to not only make a reef-safe product but educate people on why it’s so important to use it. We love that there are so many to choose from now; hopefully that means we’re all taking a step in the right direction in preserving the coral reefs!

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