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"Reef Safe" Sunscreen

Updated: Jun 9, 2021

By: Marina Garmendia

Summer is around the corner and most of you may be wondering: What is the best "reef safe" sunscreen brand to take to your next beach vacation?

My whole life I thought I was using reef-safe sunscreen. I always read the ingredients and made sure they were oxybenzone and octinoxate free. I would check that the label state "reef safe." However, a couple of days ago, while reading an article, I realized there is no official designation for "reef-safe" ingredients. The term "reef-safe" can be used by sunscreen companies as a false advertisement. This blog post will outline the harmful ingredients in sunscreen, their impact on coral reefs, and a helpful guide to buying TRUE reef-safe sunscreens.

Use physical barriers, like clothing, instead of chemicals to protect you from the sun.

How sunscreens harm coral reefs?

Every year, an estimated 4,000 to 6,000 TONS of sunscreen end up on coral reefs. Reef Safe sunscreen that will protect both your skin and coral reefs!

Every time we swim with sunscreen on our skin, harmful chemicals enter the ocean. Chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate damage coral DNA, inhibit coral growth, and increase corals' susceptibility to bleaching. Oxybenzone is an organic ultraviolet filter used in multiple sunscreens to protect human skin from UV radiation. As estimated by the US Department of Commerce in 2013, more than 3,500 sunscreen skin products contain oxybenzone. It has been proven that oxybenzone harms the organic tissues of marine organisms, specifically coral reefs. Dowans CS et al. 2015 showed that oxybenzone speeds up the secretion of calcium carbonate in coral planula (larva). Since oxybenzone is a skeletal, endocrine disruptor, it increases the production of the animal's skeleton while not allowing enough time for the tissue to form. This results in the entire planula being encased in its skeleton. In human terms, the bones outgrow the skin, slowly killing the organism.

Sunscreen chemicals combined with warming ocean temperatures, pollution, and acidification, causing corals to face an uphill battle for survival. Increased stressors can lead to coral bleaching, resulting in white coral colonies that no longer contain crucial algae symbiont.

A guide to buy TRUE reef-safe sunscreen

While buying a reef-safe sunscreen sounds like it should be a relatively straightforward process, I've found it can get a little murky.


Have you noticed that I've been showcasing the word reef-safe with "quotations" ? I realized that sunscreen companies use the label "reef-safe" for marketing reasons, but they are not safe. Which is why, I decided to create a guide to buy TRUE reef-safe sunscreen.

1. Chemicals to avoid (Make sure to read the label)

If you want to keep this simple, your best bet is to avoid all chemicals.
  • Avobenzone

  • Benzyl Paraben

  • Butyl Paraben

  • Ethyl Paraben

  • Homosalate

  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor

  • Methyl Paraben

  • Oxybenzone

  • Octinoxate

  • Octocrylene

  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)

  • Propyl Paraben

  • Parabens

  • Retinyl palmitate

  • Triclosan

  • Any form of microplastic sphere or beads.

  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium (if it doesn’t explicitly say “micro-sized” or “non-nano” and it can rubbed in, it’s probably nano-sized)

2. Look for ONLY two Active Ingredients

Now that you have chosen a sunscreen with NO CHEMICALS, look for a sunscreen that includes only Zinc oxide and/or Titanium dioxide as its active ingredients. Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide are minerals that naturally protect you from UV radiation. These minerals are hard to rub into your skin; nevertheless, they will not negatively impact your health or the reefs.

3. Only Use Non-nano Particles

Coral can consume any particles smaller than 100 nanometers, so it's essential to find a sunscreen that only has non-nano zinc oxide and non-nano titanium dioxide. If a sunscreen has tiny mineral particles, it will clog the corals' pores, leading to coral bleaching. Nanoparticle mineral sunscreens are just as harmful as chemical ones.

Every mineral sunscreen I've used has clearly labeled the active ingredients as non-nano, so no worries, you don't need to be an expert to be able to tell.

4. Read the ingredient list

Make sure to read both active and inactive ingredients. Even though the active ingredients are the primary focus, the inactive ingredients should not be disregarded.

Don't be fooled by the label "reef-safe"!! Sunscreens with the "reef-safe" label may still contain harmful chemicals.

Always read the ingredient list before buying a TRUE reef- safe sunscreen!

5. Find Companies that Only Make Reef-Safe Sunscreen

I've seen the best reef-safe sunscreens come from mission-driven companies that care and protect the coral reefs and the underwater ecosystem. They are passionate and committed to the common goal of saving our coral reefs.

For example, the popular company Sun Bum which claims to be "reef-safe," uses nanoparticles in most of their mineral sunscreens, citing them as safe for human use and ignoring the impact on the coral reefs. Nanoparticles may be fine for human health, but they're not for coral reefs. This brand also markets its products as reef-friendly when its ingredient list tells something completely different. Their products use harmful chemicals such as Avobenzone, Homosalate, and Octocrylene.

The fairly new and very popular brand Supergoop markets as a "reef-safe" sunscreen when their active ingredient list contains Avobenzone, Homosalate, and Octocrylene. Always, always, always read the ingredient list and don't let yourself be fooled by labels such as "reef-safe".

Reef Safe Sunscreens We Recommend

Raw Elements is one of my favorite brands; they have tinted, regular, and baby sunscreens. They are very committed to our oceans and the coral reef ecosystem. They use conscious packaging (non-plastic ) and participate in regular profit donations to ocean-related organizations.

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

Summer Essential Package

All Good brand is mineral-based and has everything related to skincare. Their signature product is their mineral sunscreen butter that melts on your face. This brand is widely available, and can usually be found at stores such as Target and Walmart.

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

3. ABC Arbonne

I recommend this amazing brand for babies. ABC Arbonne is also available in Europe.

Active Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 14.4% (non-nano)

Strea2Sea brand has a soft spot in my heart since the CEO and Founder Amanda Blum is an Eckerd College alum. Even though this brand is fairly new it is very trustworthy and reliable. Their website offers an ingredient dictionary on what to avoid when choosing reef safe sunscreens.

Active ingredients: 8.8% (Non-Nano) Titanium Dioxide (non-nano)

Bare Republic is made for ocean-friendly activities that promote outdoor adventures. They are mineral sunscreen lotions with broad SPF ranging from 30 up to 70.

Active ingredients: Titanium Dioxide 3.5% Non-Nano Zinc Oxide 15.8% (non-nano)

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