Summer is quickly approaching, meaning a lot of us are planning vacations and filling our days with outdoor activities. When spending time in the sun, wearing sunscreen is an absolute necessity. Skin cancer is a serious threat, especially for those in hotter climates, who often forgo sunscreen. And while it’s important to keep your skin safe, you should also do your part to help protect the environment. Not all sunscreens are created equal, and some sun protection products use ingredients that can negatively impact the environment.
According to a 2016 study, oxybenzone is one of the major offenders that can cause environmental harm, from coral bleaching to killing coral reefs, as well as damaging their DNA and ability to reproduce. In fact, this issue has become such a concern that Hawaii has gone so far as to ban certain ingredients from sunscreens allowed in the state. But if you’re looking for reef-safe sunscreen, how do you tell the difference and make sure you’re choosing the best reef-friendly sunscreens to use this summer to protect skin against sun exposure and take care of the natural environment?
To help you start your journey to safer sun exposure, I’ve rounded up some of the best reef-safe sunscreens you can buy online. Not only do these options use sunscreen ingredients that are safe for coral reefs and marine life, but they’re also highly rated and loved by the real people who use them. I also spoke with a board certified dermatologist to help explain reef-safe sunscreen and how you can protect both yourself and the environment.
This SPF 30 sunscreen from Babo Botanicals contains non-nano zinc oxide as its main ingredient. Rather than relying on chemical protection, zinc oxide provides a physical barrier between you and the sun. But since this option rubs in clear, you won’t have to worry about rocking a white sheen at the beach this summer. It’s also hypoallergenic and fragrance-free — making it ideal for sensitive skin — and contains a vitamin- and antioxidant-rich blend that hydrates your skin and helps protect it from sun damage.
Babo Botanicals Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 with 100% Mineral Actives, Non-Greasy, Water-Resistant, Fragrance-Free, Vegan, For Babies, Kids or Sensitive Skin, Clear, 3 Fl Oz
If you’re looking for some serious protection, this SPF 50 mineral sunscreen from Thinksport has you covered — literally. Like many of the other options on this list, its main ingredient is non-nano zinc oxide. While it absorbs quickly into the skin so you don’t feel oily, some users do report that you’re left with a bit of a white sheen. But it’s highly water-resistant, biodegradable and non-toxic — a trade-off that’s worth it.
Thinksport SPF 50+ Mineral Sunscreen – Safe, Natural Sunblock for Sports & Active Use – Water Resistant Sun Cream –UVA/UVB Sun Protection – Vegan, Reef Friendly Sun Lotion, 3oz
Supergoop was one of the first companies to create a sunscreen made without oxybenzone — one of the main culprits of ocean pollution. Years later, the company has remained true to its mission. This sunscreen is reef-safe, cruelty-free and loaded with skin-hydrating compounds like frankincense and meadowfoam seed oil. Made with the face in mind, it goes on completely clear, even with a high SPF 40. If you want to use it as your daily sunscreen, it also functions well as a makeup primer.
Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen, 1.7 oz – SPF 40 PA+++ Reef-Friendly, Broad Spectrum Face Sunscreen & Makeup Primer – Weightless, Invisible, Oil Free & Scent Free – Beard Friendly – For All Skin Types
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Formulated for melanated skin, this Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion by Black Girl Sunscreen offers a sheer formula that dries clear, without leaving any white residue on the skin. Made with nourishing ingredients like jojoba, cacao and avocado, it also doubles as a natural, lightweight moisturizer while the SPF 30 protects your skin from sun damage. In addition to being reef-safe, it’s also vegan and paraben- and fragrance-free.
Not only is this SPF 50 sunscreen reef-safe, it also has an almost completely organic ingredient list. It’s made with coconut oil, beeswax, cocoa butter and thanaka — an antioxidant-rich ingredient from Myanmar that reportedly has anti-fungal, anti-acne and anti-aging properties. While it can go on kind of thick, users say that it blends in nicely and lasts all day, even through intense water activities like surfing.
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Screenshot by Nasha Addarich Martinez/CNET
This Active Sunscreen Cream from Badger starts out white but rubs in completely clear, thanks to uncoated clear zinc oxide, its main ingredient. In addition to being reef-safe, it’s free of all artificial ingredients, including dyes, parabens, petrolatum and fragrances, and the ingredient list is 98% organic, too. While some users report that it’s a little greasy, others say it’s worth it since it lasts for hours, even on 90 degree-days.
Badger, Sunscreen Cream Active Broad Spectrum SPF30, 2.9 Fl Oz
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Another physical sunscreen, the Daily SPF from Cocokind combines non-nano zinc oxide with blue phytoplankton and microalgae — two ingredients from the sea — that help protect your skin from the sun’s rays and other stressors and age-accelerators like pollution and blue light. So not only does this SPF 32 sunscreen protect you from sunburn, it also helps prevent dark spots, fine lines and wrinkles. Most users say it blends in well, leaving minimal residue and no greasy feel behind.
Cocokind Daily SPF, Face Sunscreen, Mineral Sunscreen with Zinc Oxide, Unscented, Reef Safe Sunscreen with SPF 32 Protection
What are reef-safe sunscreens?
“Reef safe sunscreen keeps ocean life happy and does not contain harmful chemicals known to harm coral reefs,” says Chimento. She explains that most reef-safe sunscreens rely on physical UV-blocking ingredients like titanium dioxide and oxide that provide a barrier between your skin and the sun, deflecting the sun’s rays before they hit the skin. However, there are chemical sunscreens that are free of the major chemicals known to cause harm to coral reefs. This is where diligently checking labels becomes even more important.
Chimento points out that all types of approved sunscreens will protect your skin and are effective at blocking UV rays. But while more research is needed to determine the health implications of certain chemicals in sunscreen, reef-safe sunscreen may be a safer alternative for people who are worried about long-term exposure to chemical ingredients.
How to find reef-safe sunscreen
Unfortunately, one major issue is that the terms “reef-safe” and “reef-friendly” aren’t regulated by any governing authorities, so you can’t always take a brand’s word for it. According to Save the Reef, a charity organization founded by Karmagawa, it’s good practice to check the ingredient list and avoid any sunscreens that include any of the following ingredients:
Any form of microplastic, such as “exfoliating beads”
Particle size also matters. Nanoparticles and nano-sized zinc or titanium can build up and become toxic to coral reefs — and potentially, humans — in high concentrations. As a general rule, if a sunscreen doesn’t specify that it’s non-nano, you can assume that it’s better to avoid it.