Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens

Updated November 2020
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We recommend these products based on an intensive research process that's designed to cut through the noise and find the top products in this space. Guided by experts, we spend hours looking into the factors that matter, to bring you these selections.

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Buying guide for shopping guide for best reef-safe sunscreens

If you’re traveling to a locale with coral reefs and plan to take a dip in the water, it’s imperative (often by law) that your sunscreen be “reef safe.” This means that it doesn’t contain common chemicals, such as oxybenzone, which can damage coral reefs when they inevitably wash off your body and into the ocean. An alternative to these chemical-based sunscreens are reef-safe sunscreens that offer equivalent sun protection by using physical barriers to reflect the sun’s rays.  

A lot of reef-safe sunscreens are marketed for kids and babies, but they can be used equally by adults. Because physical sunscreens use less-toxic ingredients, they’re better for the body and the environment. While the only downside is that some don’t rub in well and leave a white cast to the skin, an increasing number are formulated to absorb better.

To learn more about choosing the right reef-safe sunscreen for you and your family, read our shopping guide below. We’ve also included our top picks of products we trust to help keep your skin protected and coral reefs safe. 

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Select sunscreens containing non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and without any chemical fillers to help protect coral reefs and marine life.

Key considerations

Why use a reef-safe sunscreen?

If you’re taking a dip in Caribbean or Pacific waters, your personal care products are also ending up in the water and affecting marine life. Scientists estimate that every year 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off of swimmers. By another estimate, 14,000 tons of sunscreen ended up in the ocean in the year 2015 alone. The chemicals in a great number of sunscreens can damage coral reefs in a few ways, including sunscreen-induced bleaching and death.

Coral is an animal, not a plant. It’s a marine invertebrate made up of thousands of animals called polyps. When exposed to a widely used chemical in sunscreens called oxybenzone, its reproductive and endocrine system is disrupted, its DNA damaged (which leads to abnormalities and deformation), and it can cause coral bleaching.

Other common ingredients listed on sunscreen bottles can contribute to coral bleaching and are therefore not considered reef safe:

  • Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3, BP-3)
  • Butylparaben
  • Octinoxate (ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate)
  • Enzacamene (4-methylbenzylidene camphor, 4MBC


In addition, these chemicals can awaken coral viruses that make the coral (and the algae they house) sick. Lastly, sunscreen pollution adversely affects some fish populations, sea urchins, and marine mammals.

Reef-safe ingredients to consider

Instead of using chemical compounds to absorb harmful UVA and UVB rays from the sun, reef-safe sunscreens use physical barriers to block the sun’s rays and reflect them off your skin. You may also see physical sunscreens labeled as “inorganic” or “mineral” sunscreens. Two common ingredients that provide nonchemical sun protection include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide

Be aware, however, that both compounds must be in a form that is coated and non-nanotized in order to be considered reef safe. If not, the formula may harm coral, fish, and other marine organisms due to the miniscule particle size.

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Expert Tip
Allow reef-safe sunscreens to absorb into your skin for 10 to 15 minutes before going into the water. This will reduce the amount that washes off.
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Reef-safe sunscreen features

Reef-safe sunscreens have similar features to regular sunscreens, including the following:

SPF: Reef-safe sunscreens range in sun protection factor ratings, generally from 30 to 50 SPF. Theoretically, a higher SPF allows you to remain longer in the sun without reapplying, though dermatologists recommend that you reapply sunscreen after two hours and after sweating or swimming.

Water resistant: Sunscreens labeled “water resistant” will stay effective longer when you swim or sweat, either 40 minutes or 80 minutes. No sunscreen is 100% waterproof, however, so it’s still important to reapply it after swimming or heavy sweating.

Baby/kids: Many reef-safe sunscreens are labeled for kids and/or babies. These are likely to be hypoallergenic and, of course, free of the harmful chemicals that can damage reefs. They are also often free of other chemicals like parabens and phthalates that can be harmful to little bodies. Adults with sensitive skin can also slather on these sunscreens.

Fragrance-free: Although reef-safe sunscreens tend to contain more natural ingredients like plant extracts and beeswax, they can still carry a scent. If you have fragrance sensitivities, opt for a fragrance-free or unscented reef-safe sunscreen. 

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Expert Tip
Avoid sunscreens with natural eucalyptus or lavender oils, which can be toxic to reefs.
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Reef-safe sunscreen prices

Reef-safe sunscreens typically come in bottles, tubes, sticks, or tins of one to six ounces. Aerosol sunscreens are generally not labeled as reef safe (although there are sunscreen sprays that omit oxybenzone, which is a chemical that can cause environmental damage).

Inexpensive: For a budget-friendly, reef-safe sunscreen, expect to pay between $3 and $5 an ounce. Be sure to double-check the ingredient list to make sure manufacturers haven’t snuck in any potentially damaging chemical fillers.

Mid-range: For a mid-priced reef-safe sunscreen, expect to pay between $6 and $9 an ounce. These may include formulas made with nontoxic organic ingredients and/or free of unwanted chemicals in addition to those that affect coral reefs.

Expensive: For a premium reef-safe sunscreen, expect to pay between $10 and $11 per ounce. These include brands made locally in marine communities affected by sunscreen pollution. 

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Expert Tip
If you’re serious about protecting coral reefs and local marine life, wear UPF-rated skin and rash guards in the water and only use reef-safe sunscreen on exposed hands, neck, and face.
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Tips

  • Apply regular lotion first. Many reef-safe sunscreens are thick and leave a white cast to the skin. Apply regular lotion immediately before rubbing in these sunscreens to ease absorption.
  • Choose a noncomedogenic sunscreen if your skin is acne-prone.
  • Don’t use sunscreen on babies younger than six months. Although many reef-safe sunscreens are formulated for babies, it’s not recommended to use them on babies under six months. Instead, use clothing and shade to keep them safe from the sun.
  • Use reef-safe sunscreen anywhere. You don’t have to be swimming in a locale with fragile marine life to use a reef-safe sunscreen. Because they’re less toxic than chemical-based sunscreens, you can use a reef-safe sunscreen all year round for safe, daily skin protection.

Other products we considered

The cult favorite, mineral-based sunscreen ThinkBaby Safe Sunscreen has a perfect score with the Environmental Working Group (EWG) for not containing any biologically toxic ingredients. Of course, it’s free from all the chemical nasties that gunk up coral reefs, and is safe for use on the whole fam. It has a high SPF (50+), includes broad-spectrum protection, and is very water resistant (up to 80 minutes). Plus, it absorbs well into the skin! We also love this brand’s sport sunscreen and their one for faces, all reef safe.

For a local flavor, we love Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian Natural Zinc Sunscreen, which includes Hawaiian-sourced natural ingredients like spirulina, kukui, and macadamia nut oil, and two dozen other skin-nourishing superfoods. It absorbs easily into the skin and moisturizes just like lotion. Its formula also boasts the highest concentration of non-nano zinc oxide on the market: 25% for broad-spectrum (SPF 50), water-resistant protection. Even if you’re not visiting Hawaii on vacation, the subtle smell conjures a vacation vibe. 

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Sunscreens that contain chemical compounds to absorb UV radiation are sometimes called “organic” sunscreens, not to be confused with sunscreens containing organic plant-based ingredients. “Organic” or chemical sunscreens can be harmful to coral reefs.

FAQ

Q. Which ingredient is better for sun protection: zinc oxide or titanium dioxide?
A.
Zinc oxide is scientifically proven to be the safest and most effective physical barrier against UVA and UVB rays. That being said, titanium dioxide also offers solid broad-spectrum protection (blocks both UVA and UVB rays) but not as much as zinc oxide. Often a zinc-oxide based sunscreen is bolstered by titanium dioxide. Both minerals are considered nontoxic.

Q. If a sunscreen is labeled “biodegradable,” is that the same as reef safe? A. Not necessarily. Biodegradable means that when exposed to moisture, heat, or other natural processes the ingredients break down into organic components. While these are generally less harmful than chemical-based sunscreens that can’t break down, some natural ingredients found in sunscreens, such as lavender or eucalyptus oil, are biodegradable but still harmful to reefs.

Q. What’s the difference between non-nanotized and non-coated nanoparticles of zinc oxide?
A.
Non-nanotized (or “non-nano” for short) refers to bigger particles, above 100 nanometers in diameter. Nanoparticles of these two compounds that aren’t coated are smaller at less than 35 nanometers in diameter. Because of their minuscule size, they can interact with cells and bring toxicity to marine creatures, including fish and coral. They also can cause coral bleaching.

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