Best Reef Safe Sunscreens, Ocean & Eco Friendly Brands
We updated our list of eco friendly sunscreen brands on the market in 2018 to figure out which ones are reef safe. Our top choices based on verified buyer experiences and EWG sunscreen test results are:
- Sun Bum Reef Friendly Oxybenzone Free Sunscreen (SPF 50) 1400+ 5 star reviews (78%)
- Thinksport Oxybenzone Free Sunscreen (SPF 50+) 270+ 5 star reviews (66%)
- Blue Lizard Sunscreen, Sensitive (SPF 30+) 730+ 5 star reviews (73%)
- TotLogic Zinc Oxide Mineral Sunblock (SPF 30) 100+ 5 star reviews (66%)
- Raw Elements Non-Nano Zinc Oxide Reef Safe (SPF 30+) 170+ 5 star reviews (48%)
Hypoallergenic & made with reef friendly, vegan ingredients
As of July 2018, the description says that it is Oxybenzone free
What to look for in Reef Safe Sunscreen?
No sunscreen is 100% safe for marine life, oceans, and reefs in particular. However, some sunscreen brands (specifically sunscreen without oxybenzone and octinoxate) are significantly more friendly compared to sunscreen with dangerous ingredients.
Here are the main ingredients to look for and chemicals to avoid in sunscreen while choosing a safe natural one for oceans:
- Top ingredient to look for in a reef safe sunscreen is almost always
non nano zinc oxide.
- Top dangerous sunscreen ingredient to avoid is oxybenzone and octinoxate. Make sure to carefully read the label to confirm your product is oxybenzone free.
- Avoid butylparaben, octinoxate, triclosan, PABA, octocrylene, and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor in sunscreen ingredients. Remember a non oxybenzone sunscreen is a must.
- Water resistant sunscreens are better as less ingredients will wash of your body and face into the ocean - so if you are looking for sunscreen for swimming, snorkeling or diving, check the water resistance duration on label.
- Parabens - another big NO - paraben free sunscreen is good for the ocean and good for sunscreen safety for your face and body.
- Check if the sunscreen brand "claims" their products are “reef safe / friendly" or "coral safe / friendly". If you are going to be in Hawaii (Oahu, Kona or any other favorite snorkeling beaches) make sure to comply with Hawaiian laws for reef safe sunscreen use.
And even though there is no eco sunscreen that is 100% safe for coral reefs, please make sure to watch the following award winning short (Reefs at Risk) and always consider using ocean friendly sunscreens:
What Sunscreens are Safe for Coral Reefs?
Active ingredient: 20% non nano Zinc Oxide
Inactive Ingredient: Purified water.
No titanium dioxide.
Usage tip: 15 minutes after first use of Thinksport sunscreen on your skin, rub it in for another round to reduce the white film like layer on your skin.
Composed of physicians and scientists that deals with latest on chemical and biological science, the team behind Thinkbaby makes baby-related products, which we presume is very safe to use. And formulating a sunscreen needs special formulation as the skin of their target users are often sensitive and delicate.
There is no dangerous chemicals in Thinksport sunscreen such as avobenzone, oxybenzone, or UV chemical absorbers and it is the first sunscreen to pass whole foods premium care requirements. We will also give our recommendation as best safe sunscreen for Thinkbaby and Thinksport product line.
If you are conscious or awkward enough about the word “baby” in the product label, yet you are an adult using a sunscreen intended for infants, then might as well consider their adult version. Having the same ingredients with its baby version but on a different concentration to suit the needs of an adult, The Thinksport Safe Sunscreen offers the same UV protection but is formulated for the highly active.
If you try to compare the ingredients between the Thinkbaby and the Thinksport, everything is the same, except that the Thinkbaby uses papaya which is ideal for baby skin while Thinksport uses Currant and Grapefruit which is deemed more suitable for a sweaty skin.
Nonetheless, users of Thinksport Safe environmental sunscreen claimed that, regardless of skin tone, it does not leave redness of the skin even in long hours of sun exposure. Some also claimed that even if they have pre-existing conditions like pimples and eczema, the product has no adverse effects.
Free from oxybenzone and titanium oxide, Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen has been given the Rated No. 1 classification by the US Environmental Working Group where it is deemed good for consumer use as a safe sunscreen. And not just this, with the absence of oxybenzone and titanium oxide in its ingredients, it is also considered a coral friendly sunscreen. It has a broad spectrum UV-A and UV-B protection with a Sun Protection Factor of 50+ and a water resistant lotion that guarantees an 80-minute shield against the sun’s UV rays.
Looking at the brand name, misconceptions often tell us that this sunscreen is only for babies. While it is initially, there are a growing number of adults using this ocean friendly sunscreen who spend hours under the sun (whether at work or leisure) and claimed that they didn’t notice any effects of UV radiation like sunburn.
I can’t help but imagine calling out our kids from their peers while you are holding up high the Thinkbaby Safe Sunscreen. It’s either they will tell you: “Oh no, not again” or “Mommy, I’m not a baby anymore“.
If you don’t want your kids to be embarrassed in front of their peers while giving them an effective sunscreen, then the Thinksport Kids Safe Sunscreen is the prefect reef safe biodegradable sunscreen for them. While it has a Sun Protection Factor of 50+ that ensures your child’s protection against UV-A and UV-B rays, it is also reef safe as it doesn’t use most of the reef-damaging ingredients.
Many parents claimed that the Thinksport Kids Safe Sunscreen easily rubs in their kids skin and does not cause any skin irritation or sunburn even if they allow they young ones to play under the beach sun for hours. A couple of moms also shared stories of their kids who have very sensitive skin, that after applying the sunscreen, just continued playing without any complaint of rashes or allergies.
Eliminated Reef Damaging Ingredients:
No oxybenzone, no octinoxate.
Non-nano mineral Zinc Oxide.
The first Badger skin product was born out of necessity in treating the company founder's cracked hands. Over the years, the family-owned Badger Company has grown to develop skin care products, including sunscreen, which only uses the finest organic plant extracts.
Working hard to formulate a coral reef safe sunscreen without oxybenzone and octinoxate, Badger products not just only protects you against UV radiation, but also heals, soothes and treats your skin. This is the reason why, from the very beginning, they never used synthetic sunscreen chemicals, artificial fragrances, paraben, oxybenzone and GMO’s.
This is also claimed by beach-goers telling us that the lotion stays in place even they have finish snorkeling, swimming or diving. The only downside of this sunscreen is its rich and thick lotion properties, that when applied to the skin, may resemble toothpaste.
Having the same five simple ingredients with the addition of Jojoba seed oil and an increased zinc oxide content of 22.5%, the Badger Sport Sunscreen is designed for the highly active person where its water and sweat resistant properties guarantee 80-minute protection against UV radiation.
A good portion of BadgerSport users have have been to triathlons involving multiple sports like running, swimming and biking. They said that this SPF 35 environmentally safe sunscreen gives them the protection they need and over the years of using it, they have learned a technique on how to effectively use it. The trick here is the application of two separate coats which is pretty similar in painting the walls of your house. During the first coating, pour a generous amount of sunscreen into the palm of your hands. Warm it first by mixing in your palms before you apply it to your skin. Initially, you will observe that it will leave a thick white film on the skin, but it will dissipate and become invisible after a few minutes. After this, do the same procedure for applying a second coat. Leaving it to settle for a couple of minutes guarantees full protection under the sun where swimmers are happy at the end of the competition without experiencing the slightest effects of sunburn.
100% certified natural and 94% certified organic, the Badger is biodegradable and is safe for coral reefs and the marine ecosystem in general. The ingredients won't leave you with a rash or itch and has the main components of calamine lotion which is in diaper rash protectors so you know if it is good for your child, it is good for you!
With more organic ingredients like olive fruit oil, beeswax, cocoa seed butter, shea butter, orange peel oil, tangerine peel oil, tocopherol from sunflower and vanilla fruit extracts, the Badger Kids Sport Sunscreen is the good protection we can give to our young ones’ sensitive skins. With a higher sun protection factor of 35, your kids are protected against UV-A and UV-B rays that can last up to 80 minutes.
Popular sunscreens use multiple substances that often exceeds at least ten ingredients. However, this is not the case for Badger unscented sunscreen.
Aside from being organic, Badger only uses five ingredients. Yes, five organic substances composing of sunflower seed oil, beeswax, seabuckthorn fruit extract and non-nano uncoated zinc oxide. With these ingredients, the Badger unscented sunscreen is considered one the best biodegradable sunscreen out in the market.
This simple reef safe sunblock formula that comes in the form of a lotion is the perfect choice for those who have sensitive skins and guarantees a water resistant capability and protection against UV-A and UV-B rays of up to 40 minutes.
Most of the consumers who have already used the Badger unscented sunscreen said they have no problem applying this rich and thick lotion even if they sweat excessively or suffering from a skin disorder called hyperhidrosis.
Eliminated Reef Damaging Ingredients:
Non Nano Zinc Oxide (23%).
It is expected that sunscreens are formulated by pharmacologists, dermatologists or any professional that has a medical background. But this is not the case for Raw Elements Eco Formula Sunscreen where its concept was made by a lifeguard and backed up by a core team dedicated to make a positive impact on the environment. Using only certified natural and organic ingredients and a non-nano zinc oxide as its active ingredient, Raw Elements have developed several sunscreen products that holds certifications like Non-GMO Project Approved, Leaping Bunny Certified, Natural Products Association Certified and EWG # 1 Rating which are important considerations for a sunblock without oxybenzone.
Made from sunflower oil, green tea, black tea, mango butter, coffee bean, hemp seed oil, cocoa butter, rosemary oil and beeswax, the Raw Elements Eco Formula 30 is a great sunscreen for the ecology conscious consumer. It provides a full-body broad spectrum protection against UV-A and UV-B rays.
The formula behind the Raw Elements Eco Formula 30 creates a water-resistant sunscreen without oxybenzone and octinoxate that is designed for high performance activities and long exposure under the sun or in the water that guarantees an 80-minute total protection against UV radiation.
The all natural ingredients of Raw Elements Eco Formula 30 is also perfect for kids where some have claimed that no skin redness or sunburn was experienced by their children even playing for hours under the direct effects of the beach sun. The only downside of Raw Elements is, as in many other zinc oxide based eco friendly sunblocks, it has a thick solution and creates a white film when applied. Other than that, heating of the sunscreen before application through constant rubbing of the hands will do the trick.
The Raw Elements Eco Stick 30 is the on-the-go version of the Raw Elements Eco Formula 30 and comes in an easy applicator rather than a lotion form.
Just like any deo stick applicator, revolving the bottom lever of the The Raw Elements Eco Stick squeezes out a small amount of the sunscreen where you can easily rub it to your skin. You have two options in applying: you can either use the applicator to spread out the sunscreen which creates a heavy white film or place a small amount and rub it thoroughly in your skin using your hands. Either ways, it gives a guaranteed 80-minute continuous protection against UV radiation. One user who works on boats claims that his working environment causes him to constantly sweat and that using the stick applicator aided him in applying sunscreen without transferring the dirt from his hand to his skin.
Other Environmental Sunscreen Products from Raw Elements
The Raw Elements Tinted Facial Moisturizer is both a sunscreen and a moisturizer made by the same natural ingredients (non nano zinc oxide) in the Raw Elements’ line of skin care products. The only downside of this sunscreen and moisturizer is that it gives a dark skin tone when applied and that the non-tinted version will cause your close friends to laugh as you may be looking like a ghost! But never mind the embarrassment as you know that you are fully protected against UV radiation, while they are not ; ) On the other hand, the Raw Elements Herbal Rescue Lip Balm is a great after-sun care product that invigorates your lips without suffering the pain caused by lip cracks.
So basically Raw Elements Eco Form is one of our top picks for Eco-friendly sunscreen which provides reef safe quality sunscreen.
It is a little thicker but within 10 minutes it will absorb into your skin. You can expect minimal white film like appearance compared to others with same type of reef safe sunscreen ingredients. Basically you need to rub in the sunscreen properly and it will more or less behave like ordinary sunscreen with some more effort. And remember you may want to leave a very slight white film for best protection from the sun.
Worth noting - just as it says on the side of the tube, Raw Elements Eco Form is non-nano and does not contain paraben. There is some hardly noticeable perfume (unlike many sexy tropical sunscreens!). Another big plus for Raw Elements is - it is Leaping Bunny certified - meaning it is not tested on animals.
Since this is one of our top recommended reef-safe sunscreens, we compiled a short FAQ for Raw Elements products:
Does Raw Elements Eco Form contain any GMO's?
No, it does not contain GMO's, actually it was the very first safe sunscreen to get approval from the Non-GMO project.
Does Raw Elements leave a white film that makes me look like a ghost?
Most reef safe sunscreens without oxybenzone and suntan lotions will do this unless you rub them in properly, take a couple of minutes to make sure you rub it in thoroughly and you will be fine.
Will it stain my clothes and will it come off when I sweat?
I have never had any problems with it staining my clothes. And no, this sunscreen is sweat resistant. The cream is a bit thicker so you won’t have to reapply it after every activity.
Can I use this under my make-up?
Absolutely! This sunscreen is pretty thick so you’re going to want to apply it and make sure that you rub it in really well beforehand. It acts like a moisturizer and makes your skin really soft, just wait a few minutes for it to absorb fully before you apply your makeup. And honestly it is more important to care about which sunscreen is safest for your skin.
My family and I are very fair and we usually use SPF 50, will this work for us?
With this type of sunscreen the thicker you spread it on the better it works. It is white, so you it can make you look ghostly until it absorbs. You can experiment with how thick you spread it on. Remember that this organic and all natural it is a lot better than using one of those carcinogenic sun blocks to protect you and your family.
Can I thin this out by adding moisturizer?
It can be heavy and you need to spend a few minutes really rubbing it into your skin, and you don’t need lots it does go a long way. I have also thinned it out by adding a bit of my moisturizer to it with no problems at all.
I am going on honeymoon, we will be spending a lot of time on the beach, will one bottle be enough?
You’re going to need more than one bottle, better safe than sorry and the bottles are pretty small. If you’re going in the water either swimming or snorkeling then this is the best time to use it, it won’t harm the plants and animals in the water…especially coral. It goes on pretty thick and you may have a slightly white color but it will protect you against burns and sun damage especially when you’re in and out of the water.
Is Zinc Oxide safe for the skin?
Yes, it is perfectly safe and several EWG #1 rated products are non nano zinc oxide.
I have allergies, does this product contain any coconut?
All of the ingredients are listed on the packaging and it contains the following: zinc oxide, organic green tea, organic black tea, organic hemp seed oil, organic beeswax, organic coffee bean, organic sunflower oil, natural mango butter, natural rosemary leaf extract, and organic cocoa butter.
Does the face stick and bottle version both have zinc oxide?
Yes, the ingredients are exactly the same and the zinc oxide is uncoated in both.
Does this smell like other sunscreen brands?
You won’t find the same ‘tropical’ scent that you are used to from other sunscreens. It is scented although it really isn’t a strong smell and it isn’t bad at all.
Does it work despite being a coral friendly sunscreen?
It works fantastic! However it is thick and you may not want to use it every day, but it is ideal for the snorkel lover, so as the scuba diver and frequent swimmer - when you are in and out of the water.
Eliminated Reef Damaging Ingredient: Oxybenzone
Active Ingredient: Titanium dioxide (non-nano particles)
Made from down under in Australia, Blue Lizard skin care products specialises in sunscreen that uses only the highest quality ingredients, chemical free, fragrance free and paraben free which is deemed reef and ocean friendly. Formulated for everyday use and recommended by dermatologists, Blue Lizard Sunscreen is effective against UV radiation, specifically from UV-A and UV-B rays. While it may sound that this product contains harsh ingredients as it provides protection from two ultraviolet spectrum, Blue Lizard sunscreen is, in fact, gentle on the skin and has developed several reef safe sunscreen products to suit the needs of swimmers and divers, snorkelers alike.
This sunscreen is specifically formulated for the highly active and those who require long hours of direct exposure under the sun. Containing the water insoluble zinc oxide, the Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen Sport is highly water resistant and guarantees a full 40-minute protection against UV radiation. Most of its users (like divers, snorkelers, surfers and plain beach goers) suggest that applying several occasions in different times of the day is almost synonymous as a day-full of protection against the sun’s dangerous rays. As an added feature to all Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen products, all their containers has a patented BPA-free plastic cap that is UV sensitive. This means that the color changes when exposed to harmful UV rays. The bluer the cap becomes, the more UV rays are present in the surrounding.
We are frequently asked the question in user comments: "Is Sun Bum reef safe?" The team behind Sun Bum products use the term "reef friendly" specifically on their website they put up after the Hawaii ban. So best judgement is yours by checking the ingredients on the packaging which we have included in the below image:
Update: Ocean Friendly Sunscreens - 2018 Newcomers
We have scanned the market for newcomers and emerging stars of the reef safe sunscreen industry. Here is a brief list of our finds for ocean friendly sunscreens you can try:
Klar Pure Zinc Oxide, as the name implies, contains 20% Zinc Oxide as the only active ingredient. As in all mineral based sunscreens, Klar needs to be blended into the skin for maximum effectiveness. It layers smoothly and nicely, and stays on skin as water resistance for a good 80 minutes. The water resistant nature of the sunscreen is achieved by use of beeswax as an ingredient. Klar Pure Zinc Oxide Sunscreen can also be used for protection for high altitude sports like mountaineering, skiing and for harsh conditions as well.
TruKid Sunny Days mineral sunscreen is a non-nano and gluten free eco friendly sunscreen which is awarded the highest ratings by EWG. Even though the target market is kids, the whole family can use this product. It is easy to apply and very importantly tear-free for kids (this is not a direct claim by the company, although verified buyers repeatedly emphasize their experience as such). The only active ingredient in TruKid Sunny Days is Zinc Oxide. The absorption to the skin is rapid and fairly easy when compared with other mineral based sunscreens.
Kokua is a Hawaii owned and locally operated brand. The only active ingredient in this brand's well reviewed reef friendly sunscreen is 25% Zinc Oxide. As in other mineral based sunscreens, Kokua Hawaiian sunscreen is quite thick and sometimes could be hard to rub in your skin. It is relatively thicker than other zinc oxide sunscreens and goes perfectly for scuba diving and snorkeling purposes as it is more likely to stay on your body for longer periods of swim / snorkel time. Hawaii grown antioxidant ingredients (like Kukui Nut Oil) are used as extras to help nourish your skin while you use this product.
Other Sunscreens without Oxybenzone and Octinoxate
Eliminated Reef Damaging Ingredient:
Titanium dioxide (non-nano particle)
Mexitan Sunscreen is a unique reef safe biodegradable sunscreen without oxybenzone and octinoxate that uses a non-nano particle of titanium dioxide (instead of zinc oxide, as previously shown in other eco-friendly sunscreen brands) as their main active ingredient. Tropical Sands and Coral Safe Sunscreen, two of their banner products, are both considered reef safe and biodegradable sunscreen as it contains no harmful ingredients that can harm the reef and uses only mineral-based compounds and organic ingredients that are all biodegradable in nature.
Formulated to be used by all ages, the Tropical Sands Unscented Biodegradable Sunscreen is one of the few popular biodegradable sunscreen brands that infuses green tea and non-nano particles for maximum protection against UV radiation.
Most of its users, usually snorkelers and scuba divers, claimed that the 80-minute guaranteed protection against sunburn indicated in their product label is true as manifested by their outdoor adventures.
Many of its users said this sunscreen is very effective and is often the recommended brand in Marine Parks that requires the use of an Eco-friendly sunscreen. Many have appreciated its non-greasy lotion, but on the other hand, feels awkward when a generous amount is applied as it leaves a thick white film. The only downside that we feel about this reefsafe product is that it has a coconut scent, despite claiming to be unscented.
Another great product rated in #1 safety on EWG, 100% non-nano Zinc sunscreen, the Babo Batonical SPF 30 is soy, dairy and gluten free. Great for all ages including adults, kids, babies and is reef safe along with being hypoallergenic!
You can use this on your body as well as your lips and it won't leave a weird taste in your mouth even if you lick your lips. It is 80 minute water and sweat resistant and will also moisturize with certified organic oils and jojoba. Not only is great in the ocean to protect the reefs and is marine friendly but if you are out playing sports and sweating it will leave you protected and last!
All Good is a top rated sunscreen free of gluten, paraben, PABA, non-nano particle and GMO so there is nothing but good and health in this product. There is organic green tea extract and rose hips for anti aging. It is unscented with minimal aroma and doesn't leave a heavy white cast on fair skin. It is non-greasy and won't sting your eyes and it is reasonably priced! If you are susceptible to certain skin conditions and have rosacea this won't affect it and make matters worse.
It is biodegradable, reef safe, and great for protected aquatic parks for the maintenance and growth of reefs and marine life. Suitable for anyone with any allergies or specifications.
Eliminated Reef Damaging Ingredient:
Titanium dioxide (non-nano particle)
Believing in the principle that everything will end up in the ocean, Stream2Sea has developed sunscreen safety products that does not involve the use of reef damaging ingredients such oxybenzone. Instead, they use derivatives of mineral compounds which comes in non-nano particles.
This means that even if their sunscreen is dislodged from the skin, it will eliminate the potential clogging of coral pores which houses the living coral organism – the coral polyp.
After passing several rigorous test like biodegradability, aquatic toxicity and reef safety, the company is convinced that they have found the formula for reef safe sunscreen and further developed body care products, like...
This mineral-based sunscreen is specifically formulated to be applied in the main frame of the body. Containing 8.8% of Titanium Dioxide (a non-nano particle), the Stream2Sea Sunscreen for Body is also made from organic materials like green tea leaf, wakame seaweed, olive leaf and aloe vera.
Most of the users of Stream2Sea said they have save a lot without sacrificing quality and efficiency. For instance, one user claimed he bought a 3-ounce bottle and used it for 10 consecutive days during a Caribbean Holiday. He got back home consuming only half the bottle and no sunburn or any skin irritation was noticed.
This body lotion is formulated to cater most types of skin tone and texture while reducing the whitening effects of mineral sunscreens and blends well with most skin colors.
Stream2Sea is favored by most scuba divers where they claim to be very effective even under intense sunlight. They have also observed that it does not leave a white film, as what other products does.
Just remember that there are two sun protection factors available for the tinted sunscreen safe for coral reefs. One is the SPF 20 which uses 6.6% of titanium dioxide while the SPF 30 has 8.8% and has been tested to be effective and water resistant for up to 80 minutes.
Buyers Guide to Reef and Coral Safe, Biodegradable Sunscreens
What is the one thing common to all of us when we put ourselves under direct sunlight?
The answer is: Exposure to ultraviolet rays.
While sunlight can be the source of life and nourishment for plants and other living things, it is somewhat the other way around for humans. Sunlight contains ultraviolet rays (abbreviated as UV rays) that can damage our skin and causes skin disorders, especially if direct exposure would mean several hours or more. But, it is impossible to confine ourselves all the time under the shade and that a part of our daily routine requires us to expose ourselves under direct sunlight.
To counter the effects of UV radiation, we put on sunscreen. We all do, unless otherwise you want yourself to be at risk of having skin cancer like melanoma or carcinoma. But do we really know what is a sunscreen and that it is not just another kind of lotion, gel or spray we buy in the market?
What is in Sunscreen?
Also termed as sunblock or suntan lotion, sunscreen is a mix of compounds that we apply on our skin that either absorbs or reflects the sunlight’s UV rays, thereby protecting us against skin damage which is commonly referred to as a sunburn.
Often comes in the form of a lotion, gel or spray, there are two general types of sunscreen wherein their classification is based on how the compounds react when UV rays touches our skin. Chemical sunscreen has compounds that absorbs UV light while Physical sunscreen reflects out the sun’s deadly rays. Regardless of the type of sunscreen, it does not guarantee total protection against UV radiation and that a certain percentage of the UV light will still come in contact with our skin. This is where SPF or Sun Protection Factor comes in and has become the rated unit for all sunscreen products. SPF is the measurement used to determine the amount (usually in fraction) of UV rays that reaches the skin. It simply means that the higher the SPF – the lesser ultraviolet rays gets in to our skin.
Example: A sunscreen that has SPF 15 means that 1/15 (or 0.07%) of the UV ray reaches the skin while SPF 50 can be expressed as 1/50 or 0.02%.
So, which is better in protecting your skin against UV rays: the SPF 15 or SPF 50?
Further, sunscreens are formulated to provide specific protection against UV-A and UV-B rays. You have to take note that within the UV spectrum, there are 2 wavelengths that can significantly damage our skin. Ultraviolet A (abbreviated as UV-A) has the ability to penetrate deep in to our skin’s deepest layer – the dermis while Ultraviolet B (abbreviated as UV-B) only reaches the outer skin layer but will often leave a superficial burn.
What are common ingredients of a Sunscreen?
Advertisements will tell us to buy their sunscreen product. But they do not tell us to read and know the ingredients behind it. Seldom than often, we do not read the ingredients behind a sunscreen product except for the SPF factor indicated in the front packaging. While ingredients vary per product, there are common compounds found in most sunscreen that is organic, mineral and synthetic in nature.
Oxybenzone – also found in hair products, this aromatic organic compound is effective in UV ray deflection. Aside from sunscreen, mass application of oxybenzone includes as an additive in making plastic products.
Titanium oxide – this mineral compound is known to effectively deflect UV light. This is also the reason why it has become the preferred ingredient for paint.
Zinc Oxide – this water insoluble synthetic compound, when converted to its nano version, is an efficient deterrent against UV radiation. It’s UV blocking properties has also been used in sunglasses and welding shields.
Why do sunscreens damage coral reefs?
When we go outdoors, especially for a beach picnic, one of the important things we never forget to bring is a sunscreen. In fact, we apply a generous amount of sunscreen to our skin hours before we expose ourselves under the sun. But what happens when we take a dip or swim, some of the sunscreen is removed from your skin, reacts with the saltwater and has been found out to cause adverse effects especially in the marine environment.
Oxybenzone, titanium oxide and zinc oxide has been found out to hasten the production of hydrogen peroxide which is a known killer of plankton. And as we know it, plankton sits at the bottom of the food chain where bigger animals rely on them as food. This is on top of the fact that plankton is one of the food source for corals. Further, titanium oxide and zinc oxide are often mixed as nano particles (meaning they are very small with a size lesser than 100 nanometer or 0.00001 millimeter) and binds into a small clump that clogs the coral pores which houses the symbiotic plankton (called zooxanthellae) that is considered the very life of a coral colony. Once these coral pores are blocked or clogged, the zooxanthellae living inside the coral cannot grow and nourish itself anymore as it also needs sunlight to survive. Overtime, as the coral receives less nourishment caused by sunlight blockage, the overall color of the coral slowly turns in to white which signals mortality and this is the very main reason we are looking to use sunscreens that doesn't hurt or harm coral.
Now, here’s the thing: just imagine the environmental damage brought by the huge crowd of beach goers and swimmers (all with sunscreen), not just locally, but worldwide. Although the amount of sunscreen we apply to our skin is only up to a few milliliters (ml) or milligrams (mg), global estimates reveal an alarming figure where an estimated 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunscreen per year are washed off from human skin and ends up in the coral reef and other parts of the ocean.
What makes sunscreens biodegradable?
One of the common misconception we initially think if we talk about biodegradable sunscreen is the bottle. We often think that these body products are contained and packed in a biodegradable container. No, it is not about the bottle, but rather, the sunscreen itself.
For companies to manufacture a biodegradable sunscreen, they often change synthetic compounds found in regular sunscreen to organic materials. This means that the three common ingredients found in most sunscreen are replaced by mostly plant-based ingredients like aloe vera, green tea, seaweeds, olive leaf and the like. By replacing synthetic compound with organic matter, the bio-degradation of a biodegradable sunscreen would only take a short time, as compared to the ingredients of a regular sunscreen that would take years to disintegrate and can no longer cause further damage to the environment.
What is Reef Safe Sunscreen?
There is a growing number of skincare companies today that is compassionate about taking care of the environment, and at the same time, make a profit out of the Eco-friendly sunscreen market. Aside from adapting the biodegradable concept into their products where the use of organic substances has become the preferred ingredient, these skincare companies have addressed the specific problem of nano particle ingredients used in common regular sunscreen which is considered the main cause of damaging the reefs.
Generally, nano particles have a smaller size compared to its original counterparts. Simple logic will tell you that smaller particles have a high possibility of clogging coral pores as compared to compounds with bigger size. With this, skincare companies have stopped synthesizing active ingredients of sunscreen in to its nano version. Instead, they synthesize these active ingredients which are non-nano in size and structure. A perfect example of this synthesis is: titanium dioxide (a non-nano particle) which is derived from the synthesis of titanium oxide (a nano particle and is the main ingredient in causing reef damage).
Sunscreen Safe for Ocean...
Much like every other product on the market, you really have to watch what you buy. Just because it says biodegradable or reef safe does not always mean that is in fact true. Normally I go over 10 products in my research for snorkelsandfins.com but I feel with "reef safe" sunscreen the research had to be much deeper.
For example Alba Botanica which used to say it is reef safe but also contains palm kernel oil which promotes destruction of rain forests. It also contains 10% Homosalate and Octocrylene which is a no no for chemicals in sunscreen. I am NOT saying this is a bad sun screen but not exactly safe for reefs and use your own judgement when choosing such products.
Now this all may sound the same but trust me there are so many different types of lotions and sunscreens that you need to be aware of and in some certain circumstances you have to have reef safe sunscreen in many national parks or you cannot even go snorkeling or diving or even go in the water without a biodegradable or reef safe sunscreen. This is just a starting point and if we all chip in we can create a difference in our world and the marine ecosystem. I did go over what to look for in reef safe sunscreen, best biodegradable sunscreen, coral safe sunscreen, ocean friendly sunscreen and best snorkeling sunscreen.
It is amazing that the word "Eco friendly" has not come sooner into our vocabulary because we need to protect ourselves and the environment and this is the only way to do it. You will often hear the terms reef safe sunscreen, biodegradable sunscreen, coral safe sunscreen and ocean friendly sunscreen and these really are the future of this industry to help all of us stay sun safe and protect the environment while being safe for coral reefs.
If you have been using products for years sometimes they will change the recipe for one reason or another so it is up to you to do the research and make sure the sunscreen and lotions are what they say. Always question products as well because just because it says “reef safe” or “biodegradable” - look at the ingredients to make sure! If you are travelling to Belize or Mexico and even the Bahamas most national parks will check to make sure you have suitable sunscreen to protect the environment so make sure you have the right products so the coral and marine life prosper for as long as we do!!
Have fun and remember to double check the sunscreen ingredients and the label - each of our decisions matter to save the coral reefs!