Reef-Safe Sunscreen Guide – and Reef-Friendly Sunscreen Brands

It's normal practice to lather ourselves with sunscreen to protect our skin from UV rays. But actually - many of the popular sunscreen options sold are bad for our coral reefs. Here's why you need to use non-toxic, reef-safe sunscreen – no matter where you live.
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Coral reefs are the ocean’s most biodiverse areas. They are also the lifeblood of our planet. 

We know that rising temperatures can cause corals to bleach. Coral bleaching is when corals undergo stress that leads to slower growth, stunted reproduction, and possibly death. While corals can recover from bleaching, it can take years for their ecosystem to heal.

Studies done in 2008 and 2016 also show that the chemicals from sunscreen can create the same bleaching response from coral. Normally, coral bleaches at 81.7 Fahrenheit (31 Celcius).

Yet toxic chemicals found in sunscreen – like oxybenzone – causes coral to bleach at 78 Fahrenheit (25.5 Celcius). 

The ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate protect us from UV rays, but harm coral reefs at the same time. These two chemicals have been found to bleach coral and slow new growth – even in small doses. Other ingredients, like octocrylene, may still be harmful to our reefs – but have been studied less.

You don’t have to jump into the water for toxic chemicals from your sunscreen to reach the ocean. 

  • Aerosol dispensers spray chemicals across the sand, where the ocean tide picks them up
  • Water runoff can bring the chemicals into the ocean
  • Oxybenzone has also been found in urine samples

This is why it’s important to use non-toxic, reef-safe sunscreen – whether or not you’re jumping into the ocean.

What is reef-safe sunscreen? 

Reef-safe sunscreen refers to sunscreen that do not contain toxic chemicals including oxybenzone and octinoxate – two chemicals studies have shown cause coral bleaching. 

Reef-friendly sunscreen can be made with minerals including zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Instead of absorbing into your skin like traditional sunscreen, these minerals sit on top of your skin to block UV rays.

Also look out for non-nanotized sunscreens, which means the ingredients are 100 nanometers in diameter or more. When those mineral ingredients are uncoated and nano-size, they can be ingested by coral where they’ll die.

It’s still not set in stone whether these minerals are completely reef-safe – but they do less harm to the environment than oxybenzone.

1. Be cautious of the “reef-safe” label

As of 2020, labelling a sunscreen as “reef-safe” is not regulated. That means that any company can use the reef-safe label without being required to test whether or not its product would harm the coral reef.

Pay attention to the active ingredients!

Look for mineral-based sunscreen that includes zinc oxide or titanium dioxide

2. Shop these reef-safe brands

We’ve done the research for you. Here are our top non-nano, mineral based sunscreen brands for you to shop from.

Non-Nano, Mineral Based Reef-Friendly Sunscreen Picks:

3. Advocate for reef-friendly laws

Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing the harmful chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate in July 2018. Key West followed suit in February 2019. When both of these laws go into effect in 2021, people there will only be able to purchase reef-friendly sunscreens.

Advocate for laws that ban the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. Let your local politicians know about the economic and environmental harm that these toxins cause.

Final Thoughts

Making the switch to reef-safe sunscreen is just the first step to saving our ocean’s coral reefs!

You can also make changes to reduce the sunscreen you have to wear – for example, wearing UPF-rated sun protection clothing or staying under the shade during the sun’s most intense hours of 11am – 2pm.

Another way you can take part is by educating your friends and family members about the importance of reef-friendly sunscreen. Share this post to help them learn more about it!

Krista Aoki

Krista Aoki

Krista Aoki is the founder of Econalu. She is social change marketer and writer. The goal behind her writing is to educate the world on how small changes can make a big, lasting impact. Connect with her on Instagram or Medium.

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