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The Ultimate Guide to Eco-Friendly, Reef Safe Sunscreen

On January 1st, 2021, a law banning the sale of over-the-counter sunscreens containing the commonly used ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate went into effect in Hawai’i.

This legislation was passed in 2018 by Governor David Ige in order to increase the protection of Hawaii’s fragile marine ecosystems. Hawai’i was the first state in the U.S. to pass such a law.

Living in Hawai’i, sunscreen is a big part of my daily life. Whether I’m enjoying a day at the beach or just running errands around Honolulu, I always make sure to apply sunscreen to protect from the year-round sun.

While I always make an effort to buy sunscreen with eco-friendly labeling, when the new sunscreen ban came into effect I realized how little I actually knew about sunscreen and its effects on the environment and our health. So I decided to do a deep dive into the complicated world of sunscreen to figure out which products I should be using.

This guide will be an ongoing work in progress because I plan to test each of the top sunscreens on my list and update the guide with info about which ones I like best. I’ll also add more reef safe sunscreen options as I come across them. One of the most common complaints about reef safe sunscreen is that it doesn’t soak in, is too messy, or leaves a coat of white on your face and body.

Does any sunscreen truly check all of the boxes? I’m determined to find out.

Let me know in the comments below if you have tried any of the sunscreens on the list and which ones are your favorites!

How Sunscreen Impacts the Environment

When sunscreen and other body products end up in the ocean they cause significant damage to coral reefs and also affect marine life and birds. It’s estimated that 82,000 different chemicals from personal care products have made their way into the oceans.

In 2015, approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen full of chemicals ended up in the world’s coral reefs, causing irreparable damage.

The two chemicals now banned from sunscreen sold in Hawai’i are oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are commonly used in sunscreen because they help absorb UV rays. Coral exposed to these chemicals becomes vulnerable and can end up bleaching. When a coral bleaches, it isn’t dead, but under severe stress, vulnerable to infection, unable to intake nutrients, and much more likely to die. The chemicals also lead to DNA damage and growth abnormalities in coral and are harmful to fish, sea urchins, and shrimp.

The addition of these two chemicals into the water also creates conditions that allow viruses to thrive, which puts corals and other marine life even more at risk. And it only takes a couple of hours for the chemicals to start doing damage.

Other ingredients found in many sunscreens are also harmful to the environment. For instance, phenoxyethanol was originally used as a mass fish anesthetic. Other preservatives and parabens, such as methyl paraben and butyl paraben, are also toxic to marine life.

And these chemicals don’t just stay in the ocean, they make their way into our food as well. That coconut flavor in your fish may not be coconut at all, but a chemical fragrance lingering from someone’s old sunscreen. Gross!

Mineral and physical sunscreens are better for the environment because they don’t use chemicals for sun protection. However, some formulas are better than others. The main thing to look for when choosing a mineral sunscreen is whether it contains nano or non-nano particles. Non-nano sunscreens are better for the environment because the particles sink to the ocean floor rather than dissolving in the water. Generally, if a sunscreen isn’t explicitly labeled as non-nano it contains nano particles. The non-nano label may be in the ingredient list or elsewhere on the packaging.

The best thing to do is to cover up with as much sun-protective clothing as possible, and only wear reef safe sunscreen on your face and other exposed areas. This greatly reduces the amount of sunscreen that ends up in the water.


What is Reef Safe Sunscreen?

There is currently no agreed upon definition or certification for reef safe sunscreen. As a result, there aren’t any required tests or demonstrations that manufacturers must perform to prove that their sunscreen is safe for coral reefs and aquatic life. Even if a sunscreen did pass this sort of test, the product may still harm the environment if introduced in large quantities.

The lack of definition of reef safe sunscreen also means that any company can label their products as reef safe as a marketing tool, a practice also known as “greenwashing.” Some companies also market their sunscreen as ocean-safe, which means it is water-resistant and less likely to wash off when swimming. But being ocean safe has nothing to do with whether it is safe for the environment. This is why it’s important to look at the ingredients list before buying any sunscreen.

Generally, for a sunscreen to be considered reef safe it can’t contain nanoparticles or the chemicals oxybenzone or octinoxate.

As mentioned above, nanoparticles can dissolve in the ocean and threaten marine life, whereas larger particles are more likely to sink to the ocean floor without causing harm. Nano and non-nano particles protect your skin equally well, but the larger particles in reef safe sunscreen are one reason it has more of a tendency to remain visible on your skin and not completely rub in. The classic non-nano sunscreen was the zinc oxide paste used on many noses throughout the 1970s.

Unfortunately, oxybenzone and octinoxate are not the only chemical ingredients that harm marine life, so the reef safe label is just a step in the right direction. Other potentially damaging ingredients include octocrylene, homosalate, and octisalate, among others. These chemicals are not only found in sunscreen, but in other personal care products as well.

Studies have shown that these ingredients are damaging to marine life, and that they can be found at detectable levels in numerous species of fish worldwide. Not enough research has been conducted on all of these substances yet to add them to sunscreen ingredient bans, but hopefully they will be added to the harmful ingredient list in the coming years.


The Effects of Sunscreen on our Health

Anything that is damaging to marine life and coral reefs probably isn’t too healthy for humans either. Many of the most common ingredients used in sunscreen are known endocrine disruptors. Even small doses of endocrine disruptors can interfere with everything from our hormones to our metabolism to our reproductive systems.

Studies have shown that the commonly used ingredients avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate all readily absorb into the human bloodstream at a concentration higher than FDA safety levels.

The nanoparticles present in aerosol spray sunscreens and many other sunscreen products are damaging to our lungs and also enter our bloodstream. The chemical ingredients used in sunscreen have even been found in women’s breast milk, and many of their long term effects have not been thoroughly studied.

Non-nano mineral sunscreen is better for our health because particles larger than 30 nanometers do not get absorbed into the skin through our pores or follicle openings.

Another issue is that most sunscreens sold in the U.S. focus on protection from UVB rays, and mostly ignore UVA rays. This is problematic because there are far more UVA rays than UVB rays, and UVA rays cause more long-term damage, it’s just more subtle since it doesn’t lead to sunburns. UVA rays damage DNA and the layer of skin where most skin cancers occur, on top of causing ageing.

UVB rays are the type that cause sunburns and short-term skin damage, while UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin, causing aging. Both types can lead to skin cancer. UVB rays are stronger than UVA, and fortunately, the ozone layer filters out most of them. Only 1% of ultraviolet radiation on Earth comes from UVB rays.

The FDA has initiated several efforts over the past decade to strengthen the required amount of UVA protection in sunscreen products, but no laws have been passed yet.

The best way to protect against both UVA and UVB rays is to wear UV protective clothing. But sunscreen can also protect against both types of UV radiation if it uses physical UVA and UVB filters instead of chemical ones. Chemical filters work by absorbing UV rays and turning them into heat that gets released from the skin, whereas physical filters block the UV rays from entering your skin at all.

The active ingredients you should look for that create a physical UV filter are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

The good news is that this type of broad spectrum sunscreen is also better for the environment.


What About SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor. It’s a measurement of how long a sunscreen will protect you from UVB rays, based on your skin type.

It’s important to note that a higher SPF doesn’t mean that a sunscreen provides better or stronger protection for your skin, it just protects you for a longer amount of time. This is how SPF levels work – if your skin begins to burn after 20 minutes in the sun without any protection, (the typical amount of time for a light-skinned person,) a sunscreen with SPF 30 will protect you for 600 minutes.

20 minutes x SPF 30 = 600 minutes, or 10 hours

In other words, it will theoretically take 30 times longer to burn when wearing an SPF 30 sunscreen than if you don’t wear any protection.

While this seems like a long time, in reality, the sunscreen you apply won’t last that long. It will soak in, rub or wash off within an hour or two. So it’s important to reapply sunscreen every 80 to 90 minutes, or after you swim, sweat, or towel off. Also, most people don’t apply enough sunscreen to reach the product’s SPF level, so it’s important to apply a generous amount.

So which SPF should we look for when buying sunscreen?

The EWG recommends using sunscreen with an SPF between 15-50. There isn’t a lot of additional benefit to wearing sunscreen with a high SPF since the product won’t last for hours on end. Also, products with higher SPFs often contain more chemicals, making them worse for the environment and your health. Studies have shown that sunscreens with an SPF higher than 30-50 don’t provide any significant additional protection against UV radiation.

The FDA has even claimed that sunscreens with an SPF higher than 50 are “inherently misleading,” since they give consumers a false sense of security and the higher SPF levels aren’t necessarily accurate. In 2019, the FDA proposed to limit SPF values to 60, but this legislation has not yet passed.

Therefore, a well tested, water-resistant, SPF 30 sunscreen is a solid choice.

Remember though, sunscreen SPF levels only measure protection against UVB rays, not UVA. UVA rays are harder to protect against, and the ratio of UVA protection can decrease as SPF increases due to changes in ingredient balance. In order to protect against both types of UV rays, be sure to look for a sunscreen containing at least 15% zinc oxide. And don’t rely solely on sunscreen. Add hats, shade, sunglasses, and UV protective clothing to your sun protection routine.


Sunscreen Bans and Regulations

Hawai’i is not the only place enacting rules about which types of sunscreen can be used and sold. Certain regions in Mexico require tourists to use reef safe sunscreen, such as the Riviera Maya. The City of Key West, Florida, encourages both residents and tourists to use eco-friendly sunscreen, although they have not yet enacted any sunscreen regulations.

Other regions have banned the use or sale of sunscreens that contain specific ingredients. These include:

Europe has stricter standards about sunscreen products than the United States. The major difference is that sunscreen sold in Europe must have proportional UVA and UVB protection, whereas this balance of protection is not required in the United States. Most products sold in the U.S. focus on UVB protection and would not meet the standards for UVA protection required in Europe.


Eco-Friendly Sunscreen Packaging

Another issue with most sunscreens you’ll find in stores is their plastic packaging. Although some plastic packaging is labeled as recyclable, the majority of plastic waste never gets recycled and instead ends up in landfills, incinerators, open fires, the ocean, and freshwater systems. In 2016, between 1.2 million and 2.5 million tons of plastic ended up in rivers, lakes, the ocean, or non-landfill sites. And that’s from the U.S. alone.

The green dream of plastic recycling is almost entirely a myth. Packaging from food, beauty, and skin products such as sunscreen is often too dirty to be recycled. And the problem is only getting worse, with more waste created each year and nation after nation giving up on recycling systems.

The U.S. alone generates more than 34.5 million tons of plastic waste per year, but in 2015 only about 9% got recycled.

Nations such as China have stopped accepting most waste from the U.S., and they used to handle the processing for about half of the plastic that got recycled. There is nowhere for that waste to go. About 19,000 shipping containers full of plastic per month that used to get shipped abroad are now stranded in the U.S..

Adding rubbish to landfills is not only a waste of materials, it is hazardous. When plastic gets shipped abroad, some of it ends up in unregulated landfills where it can leak dangerous liquids into the groundwater, on top of being a pest-infested fire hazard. Even in regulated landfills, toxins can leak into the soil and water, and decomposing waste creates methane, which is a far stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. Landfills are the third biggest source of methane emissions in the U.S.

Even if plastic does get recycled, it is often turned into useless products such as cheap toys and plastic pellets. And the process of recycling plastic emits toxic fumes and greenhouse gases, on top of the emissions created from shipping the materials around the world, washing, shredding, and preparing them to be reused.

One of my favorite quotes from sustainability advocate Annie Leonard is “there is no such thing as ‘away'”. When we discard of things they must end up somewhere. If you put plastic in a recycling bin, it may be trucked to the coast, then shipped across the ocean, sorted by a family living in the middle of a pile of toxic trash, and finally thrown into a river on its way to the ocean.

The best way to prevent this from happening is by making your own products at home or purchasing products that don’t come in plastic packaging. There are many more eco-friendly packaging materials out there, from glass jars to aluminum tins. I’ve included some of my favorite sunscreen options that come in plastic-free packaging in the list below.


What to Look for and What to Avoid When Buying Sunscreen

Although no sunscreen is perfect, some are a lot better than others for both the environment and your health.

The key things to look for when choosing a sunscreen are:

  • Lotion, cream, balm, or non-aerosol spray. Avoid all aerosol sprays.
  • Water-resistant
  • Paraben-free
  • Free from the ingredients listed below
  • SPF 15-30 (see above section for the full explanation)
  • Broad-spectrum (blocks both UVA and UVB rays)
  • Non-nano particles
  • Palm oil Free

Other traits you may want to look for in a sunscreen include:

  • Vegan
  • Cruelty Free
  • Fair Trade
  • Organic
  • Biodegradable
  • Mineral
  • At least 15% zinc oxide to block both UVA and UVB rays (the best form of zinc oxide is uncoated, non-irradiated, and non-nano)
  • Eco-friendly packaging materials, such as a metal tin, glass jar, or recyclable paper

Look at the ingredient list. Specific harmful substances to avoid include:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Octisalate
  • Homosalate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Sodium Laureth Sulfate
  • Pthalates
  • Chemical fragrances
  • Nanoparticles such as zinc or titanium: If it doesn’t say “non-nano” or “micro-sized” it is probably nano
  • Titanium dioxide: This mineral doesn’t biodegrade and can form harmful hydrogen peroxide in warm water
  • Petrolatum, or mineral oil: This ingredient takes years to biodegrade and is harmful and even fatal to marine life and birds
  • Any microplastics, such as “exfoliating beads”


List of the Best Eco-Friendly and Reef Safe Sunscreen Options

divider

The Details


✅ BROAD SPECTRUM

✅ REEF SAFE

✅ NON NANO

✅ BIODEGRADABLE

✅ WATER-RESISTANT UP TO 80 MINUTES

✅ SOY, GLUTEN, AND NUT FREE

✅ CRUELTY FREE

✅ PLASTIC-FREE PACKAGING

❌ VEGAN (Contains beeswax)

SIZE: 3.0 oz

SPF 30

PRICE: $18.99

Active Ingredient: Non Nano Zinc Oxide (23%)

Inactive Ingredients: Sunflower Oil*, Green Tea*, Black Tea*, Coffee Bean*, Hemp Seed Oil*, Cocoa Butter**, Mango Butter**, Beeswax*, Rosemary Oil Extract**, Vitamin E**

* USDA Certified Organic
** Certified Natural


The Details


✅ BROAD SPECTRUM

✅ REEF SAFE

✅ NON NANO

✅ WATER-RESISTANT

✅ PLASTIC-FREE PACKAGING

❌ VEGAN (Contains beeswax)

SIZE: 2.0 oz

SPF 30

PRICE: $24.00

Active Ingredients: Non-Nano Zinc Oxide

Inactive Ingredients: Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil*, Beeswax, Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Butter*, Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Fruit Powder*, Melaleuca Alternifolia (Tea Tree) Leaf Oil, Tocopheryl Acetate

*Organic


The Details


✅ BROAD SPECTRUM

✅ REEF SAFE

✅ NON NANO

✅ BIODEGRADABLE

✅ WATER-RESISTANT

✅ SOY, GLUTEN, AND NUT FREE

✅ CRUELTY FREE

❌ PLASTIC-FREE PACKAGING (Tube made from recyclable plastic)

❌ VEGAN (Contains beeswax)

SIZE: 3.0 oz

SPF 30

PRICE: $17.50

Active Ingredient: Non Nano Zinc Oxide (23%)

Inactive Ingredients: Sunflower Oil*, Green Tea*, Black Tea*, Coffee Bean*, Hemp Seed Oil*, Cocoa Butter**, Mango Butter**, Beeswax*, Rosemary Oil Extract**, Vitamin E**

* USDA Certified Organic
** Certified Natural


The Details


✅ BROAD SPECTRUM

✅ REEF SAFE

✅ NON NANO

✅ BIODEGRADABLE

✅ WATER-RESISTANT

✅ CRUELTY FREE

✅ GLUTEN AND GMO FREE

✅ PLASTIC-FREE PACKAGING

❌ VEGAN (Contains beeswax)

SIZE: 1 oz

SPF 50+

PRICE: $19.80

Active Ingredient: 25% Zinc Oxide

Inactive Ingredients: Organic Coconut Oil, Organic Beeswax, Organic Calendula Flowers infused in Organic Jojoba Oil, Vitamin E.


The Details


✅ REEF SAFE

✅ NON NANO

✅ WATER-RESISTANT

✅ CRUELTY FREE

✅ PLASTIC-FREE PACKAGING

✅ GMO FREE

✅ VEGAN

❌ This is a smaller brand that hasn’t been able to undergo broad spectrum testing, but their product contains similar ingredients to other products that meet the requirements for broad spectrum labeling.

SIZE: 2.0 oz

SPF 30

PRICE: $11.99

Ingredients: Extra Virgin, organic olive oil, non-nano 25% zinc oxide, sesame seed oil**, candelilla wax (vegan), virgin, raw macadamia nut oil**, virgin, organic coconut oil, tocopherol (vitamin e T-50), and French lavender essential oil.


Sunscreens to Avoid

The following sunscreens do not fit the criteria discussed above and should be avoided. Note that this is not an exhaustive list, but these are common sunscreen options found at stores:

  • Alba Botanica Hawaiian Sunscreen, SPF 45
  • Australian Gold Botanical Natural Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70
  • Australian Gold Spray Gel Sunscreen, SPF 15
  • Aveeno Protect+Hydrate Sunscreen, SPF 50
  • Banana Boat Kids MAX Clear Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
  • Banana Boat Ultra Defense Clear Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
  • Banana Boat Ultra Sport Sunscree, SPF 30
  • Banana Boat Ultra Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
  • COOLA Classic Body Sunscreen Spray, Peach Blossom, SPF 70
  • Coppertone Sunscreen Lotion Water Babies, SPF 50
  • Coppertone Sport Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
  • CVS Health Ultra Protection Sun Lotion, SPF 100
  • CVS Health Sensitive Skin Sun Lotion, SPF 60+
  • CVS Health Ultra Sheer Lotion, SPF 100
  • Elta MD Skincare UV Clear, SPF 46
  • Equate Beauty Ultra Light Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100
  • Equate Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30
  • Equate Sport Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100
  • Eucerin Daily Protection Moisturizing Face Lotion, SPF 30
  • Glossier Invisible Shield Daily Sunscreen, SPF 35
  • Isdin Ultralight Emulsion, SPF 50+
  • Naturopathica Daily UV Defense Cream, SPF 50
  • Neutrogena Age Shield Face Oil-Free Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 110
  • Neutrogena Sensitive Skin Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 60+
  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Body Mist Sunscreen Spray, SPF 100+
  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100+
  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 85+
  • Neutrogena Ultra Sheer Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 55+
  • NO-AD Suncare, SPF 45
  • Panama Jack Sunscreen Continuous Spray, SPF 100
  • Panama Jack Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 15
  • Shiseido, SPF 50+
  • Sun Bum, SPF 30
  • Sun Bum Moisturizing Sunscreen Spray, SPF 70
  • Supergoop Play Everyday Sunscreen, SPF 50
  • Walgreens Dry Touch Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 100

Other Ways you can Help

In addition to buying eco-friendly and reef safe sunscreen for your own use, there are other ways you can help protect the environment from the harmful effects of sunscreen ingredients. One way is by sharing this post and spreading the word about sunscreen to your friends and family.

You can also get involved by encouraging your local government to enact legislation banning the sale and use of environmentally damaging sunscreen.


Disclaimer: This content is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. 

Please note that some of the above links are affiliate links, and at no additional cost to you, I earn a commission if you make a purchase. I would never recommend anything I don’t personally love and the income goes towards keeping this site running and free for everyone to use.

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