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Reef Safe Sunscreens

Updated: Jul 27, 2022

While Autumn is my favorite season, I can't resist a good pool or beach day during the Spring and Summer. I can't describe the feeling of peacefulness when I feel the cool water hitting my body while the sun warms my face. Unfortunately the peacefulness is short-lived when just a few hours later I end up looking like Mr. Krabs because I didn't apply enough sunscreen. Hence, the point of this post. Sunscreen is HELLA important because it's designed to product your skin from the harmful rays of the sun. Too much exposure with little protection is not only linked to things like minor burns but also third degree burns and skin cancer. Similar to how important it is to use sunscreen, it's also super important to use ones that are reef safe.

Now Shelbi, what does it mean to be "reef safe?" I'm glad you asked! Similar to chemical pollutants in the air and land around us, the ocean is also chemically polluted as well. As reported by Marine Safe, as much as 82,000 different types of chemicals from personal care products are currently swimming around in our oceans and destroying our reefs. Sunscreen is one of the largest contributing factor to this chemical pollution. What about sunscreen makes it so dangerous and deadly to reefs though, Shelbi? Well, obviously the chemical components in the lotion. The two main culprits are oxybenzone and octinoxate. While these two chemicals are fantastic for absorbing the sun's harmful rays, they are also known to alter DNA and disrupt endocrine processes that can lead to serious deformities in reefs. In addition, they are also known to cause coral bleaching. Now what is coral bleaching? Coral has a symbiotic relationship with the algae that inhabit it; essentially these algae are responsible for nearly ALL of the energy the coral needs. But when coral bleaching is initiated, the coral releases the algae living in its tissues causing it to turn from that beautiful vibrant color to completely white.

The list of chemicals that are harmful to the environment in mainstream sunscreen is long. However, that doesn't mean you have to give up sunscreen! There are so many brands that have made big strides in making sustainable alternatives to sunscreen so you can go out there and continue to live your best life! So, let us get into what is appropriate as well as not appropriate when trying to protect coral reefs.


Beside research, the best way to know if a sunscreen is reef safe or not is by looking at the chemicals and ingredients that it is made up of. If it has one of the following chemicals or ingredients, it is NOT reef safe: oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, homosalate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, PABA, parabens, triclosan, any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium, or any sunscreen that has exfoliating beads. Now let’s talk about specific sunscreens that are not reef safe. No matter what you have heard or seen, Sun Bum is NOT reef safe. They are reef “friendly” but still contain harmful chemicals that put coral reefs at risk. It is not worth it. Feel free to use it at home or when you are not getting in the water, but if there is ever a chance that you will be entering a beach with coral reefs, do not apply Sun Bum. Other sunscreens that contain harmful chemicals include: Alba Hawaiian Sunscreen, Coppertone, Naturopathica, Neutrogena, Hawaiian Tropic, Banana Boat and many more. If you are going to one of these beaches, I strongly recommend you to not use these sunscreens not because they destroy coral reefs but also because it is illegal to use non reef safe sunscreen there. First time offenders will be charged $1,000, and this will continue to double as the offenses rack up. When traveling, please do your research and do your best to respect the rules of the city or island you are visiting.


Now that we have talked about the sunscreens that should not be used in these places, let’s talk about what sunscreens are appropriate to use, why, and the difference between them and other sunscreen. To get right to the point, almost no clear spray sunscreen is going to be reef safe. Why, you ask? This is because the chemicals mentioned above are in these sunscreens in order to make it clear. I get it, no one wants to look like Mr. Frost at the beach, but to help keep reefs safe, this is what has to be done. It is normally safe to say that the majority of spray sunscreens are not reef safe. Yes, this makes the application process quite a bit longer, but it is worth it. A big problem that arises with reef safe sunscreen is that it does not normally last as long as the others that we are used to. They apply on thick, which can be deceiving, but it is crucial that you reapply throughout the day or else you risk looking like this when you get home….

The sunscreen normally lasts for 40-60 minutes so it is suggested that you reapply hourly, take that as you may. Now that we’ve hit the basics, let us talk specifics.

Zero Waste / Plastic Free

Here are the sunscreen brands that are either completely zero waste or come in plastic free packaging:

This sunscreen butter by All Good is a great zero waste alternative to mainstream sunscreen as it comes in a re-usable tin and is made with only SIX coral-reef safe ingredients. It's very, VERY water resistant! You will be very protected even on your most sweatiest days outside. It does require that you re-apply every 80 minutes though. All Good uses USDA certified organic ingredients, is a certified B-Corp member, a member of 1% for the Planet, and Leaping Bunny certified. All of their products are made in-house in the Morro Bay Community Center's kitchen which is also solar powered.

While working as a lifeguard, brand founder Brian Guadagno witnessed how harmful sunscreen chemicals were to the environment. This inspired him to create his own line of reef-safe sunscreen. Raw Elements sunscreen comes with 30+ SPF and provides protection beyond 80 minutes. You can even apply it directly underwater; that's how safe it is! If you want it completely zero waste, check out the face stick which comes with biodegradable packaging or the reusable tin!

This sunscreen paste by Manda is one I've frequented in the past. It's SPF 50 and comes in the really cool and reusable packaging made from bamboo and tin. What really impresses me about Manda is the way it sits on your skin. Rather than traditional sunscreens that absorb into your skin, Manda leaves a visible layer on top, acting as a visual indicator of protection.

This one is perfect for those of you with children! While the brands I discuss in this post are all pretty much safe for anyone (unless you're allergic to the ingredients) this one is specifically made for children. It comes in a reusable glass jar and is SPF 30. You can apply to both the body and lips! It's also multi-functional in that it can also be used for diaper rash which is awesome for helping you streamline and decrease the amount of product you're packing for your beach or pool day.

Sea & Summit

While guiding a group of kayakers off the coast of Santa Barbara, Ryan Kell, a fair skinned ginger, decided that since he spends 8 plus hours in the sun each day, it was time to look into sunscreen, but not just any sunscreen: reef safe sunscreen. He got to work in his kitchen, cooking up new recipes for reef safe sunscreen in order to protect the waterways, shorelines, and marine animals that he worked so closely with. Since then he has created his own brand “Sea & Summit” that has eco-friendly packaging as well as organic ingredients that protect marine wildlife. This brand not only protects wildlife and your skin, but once rubbed in blends with your natural skin tone ensuring that you don’t look like Mr. Frost on the beach or Mr. Krabs when you return home.

Raw Love

If you are a surfer, paddler, diver, or hiker, it’s time to listen up. In 2015, founder of Raw Love, Jenna Davis began to question the effects that the minerals of sunscreen had on the environments that she so frequently visited. With her degree in marine biology and a little bit of trial and error, she created an eco-friendly, reef friendly, biodegradable, and non toxic moisturizing sunscreen for those who share her passion for the outdoors. The sunscreen is made with high quality ingredients that will keep our skin soft and safe!

Mama Kuleana

After seeing the damage that sunscreen’s chemicals can cause in their waterways, a team of Hawaiian’s put their brains together to create Mama Kuleana sunscreen. This sunscreen was made to be reef safe, 100% microplastic free, and have no toxins that could harm fish, coral, or even us. The inspiration sparked from the Kuleana Reef in Maui, Hawaii, and since its creation has been manufactured out of Kahului, Maui. The team has met their goal of protecting waterways and their wildlife, but in addition to that has created biodegradable packaging for all of their products. Therefore, their sunscreen not only benefits wildlife, but life as a whole through their green living practices.

If you're balling on a budget or just into DIY projects, definitely use this recipe as your guide! Kathryn's recipe is a mineral sunscreen which is considered one of the safest versions of sunscreen not to mention it is reef safe! It sits on the top layer of your skin rather than being absorbed. It also calls for natural ingredients that naturally provide SPF 30 protection!

Here's a list of some more zero waste/plastic free sunscreen products:

EiR NYC Face Stick OR Surf Mud

Not Zero Waste but Still Great

Here are the brands that are not completely zero waste and plastic free due to the packaging but they're still fantastic options:

Garden Goddess has a wide range of sunscreen products to meet the needs of yourself and your family. They even have a aerosol spray version when you need a quick spritz in between all of those fun activities! Garden Goddess sunscreen is biodegradable with natural plant-based and mineral ingredients only. You can even return the empty packaging back to the brand through TerraCycle!

Stream2Sea specializes in SPF 30 mineral sunscreen. It's made using natural ingredients and it's also gluten and wheat free! The sunscreen formula itself is biodegradable, and the packaging (which can be recycled through TerraCycle) is made from sugar cane resin. Stream2Sea is also a 1% for the Planet Member. Need it in bulk? Look no further!

If you were interested in All Good but wanted a lotion formula as opposed to a butter, they've got it! Similar to the butter, this is reef safe, lightweight, and non-greasy. It's perfect to use if you're going to be sweating a lot in the sun. This formula is also made using natural ingredients and is gluten-free. You can also recycle the packaging through TerraCycle!

Badger is a small, family-run, personal care company based out of New Hampshire. Their reef safe sunscreen is made using only 5 ingredients and is scent free, perfect for those with fragrance sensitivities! This sunscreen is SPF 35, is gluten free, and made using 94% organic ingredients.

Other Forms of Sun Protection

Sunscreen isn't the only item you can use to help protect you from sun-exposure damage. Here's a few other items that can help:

Sunscreen is only effective if you remember to put it on in the first place, and also remember to reapply. This rash guard by Stream2Sea offers an additional UBF 50+ sun protection by shielding your arms, chest, and torso from the sun's harmful rays. The fabric of this rash guard is made using repurposed nylon from fishing net materials. It's also very lightweight and dries quickly!

Similar to the rest of your body, it's super important to protect your face and scalp from the sun's harmful rays! I highly recommend wearing a hat to provide this protection. Personally, I love a good straw hat! They give off that beach chic vibe.

You guessed it. Your eyes also need protection from the sun's harmful rays! Thankfully there are TONS of brands working hard to develop sunglasses that not only look good, but provide this protection while also using sustainable materials. Check out my blog post here on sustainable eyewear!

After Sun Protection

While it's important to protect your skin before hanging out in the sun, it's also important to protect your skin after. The sun can be quite damaging when exposed to it for long periods of time. It can cause premature wrinkling, sun burns, and even dryness. Here's some options to help protect your skin after sun exposure!

Aloe Vera

Aloe vera is a tried and true natural ingredient that has TONS of healing properties. It provides moisture to dry skin and feels A M A Z I N G when you've got a sun burn and need some cooling relief. There are many options of aloe vera treatment at your disposal. My favorite (and probably the cheapest, quickest, and most zero waste) is straight up buying an aloe vera leaf, cutting it open, and removing the gel. However, if you don't have access to aloe vera leaves or just want to avoid the work and sticky mess, check out this aloe vera gel by Badger.

Aloe vera is great and all but sometimes you want something thicker for dry skin and burned skin. That's perfectly okay! Here's a list of natural after-sun care lotions and sprays!


Tom Davis
Tom Davis
Apr 16

Would any of these ingredients be non-reef-friendly? Active Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 24.08%.... Inactive Ingredients: isobutane, water, C12-15 alkyl benzoate, isopropyl palmitate, butyloctyl salicylate, ethylhexyl isononanoate, cetyl PEG/PPG-10/1 dimethicone, propylene glycol, cyclopentasiloxane, bis-octyldodecyl dimer dilinoleate/propanediol copolymer, dimethicone, ethylhexyl methoxycrylene, polyester-27, caprylyl methicone, triethoxycaprylylsilane, beeswax, hydroxyacetophenone, sodium chloride, PEG-12 dimethicone crosspolymer, 1,2-hexanediol, caprylyl glycol, tocopherol, cetyl dimethicone


Jun 24, 2021

Do any of these work well for darker skin? I find most physical sunscreens leave an obvious white cast.


Maria Soto
Maria Soto
May 03, 2021

Can you actually link the research papers about reef safe sunscreens? I couldn't find any evidence, only people saying it was bad.

May 03, 2021
Replying to

Sure! The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration has compiled a lot of the info. It’s pretty easy to find the research via a Google search. hope it helps,


Mar 20, 2020

Thanks for all your in-depth research on products: what's beneficial and what's not. I've been REALLY pleased with my purchases after following your recommendations! My question is: Trader Joe's has a Non-nano Zinc Oxide Mineral Sunscreen Stick. It contains mostly healthy ingredients, but also a couple I'm not sure about. Does either Octyldodecanol or Bisabolol harm reefs? Many thanks!

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