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Reef-Safe Sunscreens To Protect Your Skin And Our Oceans

by Suzana Rose

May 7, 2021

It’s no secret that adding sunscreen to your daily skin care regimen is a must, rain or shine. Although wearing sunscreen regularly is one of the best things you can do for your skin, the widespread use of sunscreen is contributing to a massive global issue, which threatens marine life and the diversity of our underwater environments.

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The issue is, majority of the chemicals commonly found in most sunscreens or other personal care products end up washing into the world’s oceans. It’s as simple as wearing sunscreen when you go for a swim in the water, or even using aerosol sprays on the beach where most of the product actually lands on the sand and eventually leaches into the water. Because of this, the coral reefs are suffering from irreparable damage.

Why choose a reef-safe sunscreen?

The harmful chemicals found in most sunscreens are killing off coral polyps and leading to coral bleaching. Why is this important? Well, coral reefs play an essential role in maintaining the health and diversity within ocean environments.

To put things into perspective, let’s take a look at the numbers. According to National Geographic, a combination of factors, such as warming waters, coastal development, and pollution have contributed to the decline of corals in the Caribbean by about 80% – this is only the damage that’s occurred within the past 50 years.

What can we do to protect the world’s coral reefs?

The good news is that very specific destinations across the globe are recognizing the human contribution to this imminent coral reef crisis and thus taking control of the situation by implementing regulations to ban the sale and use of sunscreens containing chemicals that are toxic to the environment.

Back in May 2018, Hawaii passed a bill condemning the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing the ingredients deemed as most dangerous to the coral reefs, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate. In November of that same year, Palau made a similar announcement with a bill condemning a longer list of dangerous chemicals.

The bad news? This isn’t enough.

Of course, having these bans in place is a huge step in the right direction to preserve the integrity of the environment. But at the end of the day, it’s still up to us, as consumers, to make eco-friendly choices when it comes to our buying habits.

What to consider when choosing a reef-safe sunscreen

Without a doubt, picking out a sunscreen that’s entirely safe for the environment can be tricky. Although certain sunscreens might be entirely free of the chemicals that are most threatening to the coral reefs, you still need to read the label. Some products might contain trace amounts of other chemicals that pose a threat to the environment.

When it comes to reef-safe habits, it’s a good idea to stay away from aerosol sprays because a lot of the product just ends up on the sand before washing away into the waters.

In a nutshell

Here’s what you should look for in a reef-safe sunscreen:

  • Biodegradable
  • Mineral sunblock (Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide) instead of chemical sunblock
  • Without nanoparticles (Non-nano)

Here’s a list of sunscreen ingredients to avoid:

  • 1. Oxybenzone
  • 2. Octinoxate
  • 3. Octocrylene
  • 4. PABA (Aminobenzoic Acid)
  • 5. Enzacamene
  • 6. Octisalate
  • 7. Homosalate
  • 8. Avobenzone

Also try to avoid the following preservatives or additives which damage sea life:

  • 1. Parabens
  • 2. Triclosan
  • 3. Plastic microbeads
  • 4. Pthalates

Here are our top picks for the best reef-safe sunscreens to use on your face. All of which are cruelty-free, of course.

Paula's Choice – Essential Glow Moisturizer SPF 30

  • Best for: Normal, dry, and combination skin types
  • Active ingredients: Zinc Oxide 6.12% (Non-nano) and Titanium Dioxide 5.25%

The Defense Essential Glow Moisturizer SPF 30 ($29) is the only sunscreen from Paula's Choice that is non-nano, and it's also my current favorite! I love it because it doesn't leave a white cast, sinks in quickly, and has just the right finish. It's not greasy, yet it doesn't dry down matte either.

Unlike other sunscreens, it's not pure white. It has a beige tint that dissolves perfectly and blends into all skintones. It also wears wonderfully under makeup and contains antioxidants to help protect against the effects of environmental damage.

The Ordinary – Mineral UV Filters SPF 30 with Antioxidants

  • Best for: Normal, dry, and combination skin types
  • Active ingredients: Zinc Oxide (Non-nano) and Titanium Dioxide

The Ordinary’s Mineral UV Filters SPF 30 with Antioxidants ($9.70) is a fantastic choice for someone who’s looking for a sunscreen that also nourishes their skin. In terms of texture, this sunscreen applies like a rich lotion.

The Bio-Sugar Complex provides long-term hydration to your skin, along with a potent combination of antioxidants to support your skin’s natural mechanisms. The non-irritating formula is also enriched with flavanones, anthocyanins, and minerals to calm and soothe your skin!

MyChelle – Sun Shield Unscented SPF 28

  • Best for: All skin types
  • Active ingredients: Zinc Oxide 11.6% (Non-nano) and Titanium Dioxide .67%

MyChelle’s Sun Shield Unscented SPF 28 ($16) offers your skin maximum UVA/UVB broad-spectrum protection.

Not a fan of the greasy feeling you get from most sunscreens? I hear ya!

What’s great about this sunscreen is how incredibly lightweight the sheer formula feels on your skin, which leaves behind a silky, matte finish. This sunscreen can be worn alone or even as a sheer primer under your makeup!

Looking for a reef-safe body sunscreen? These are our top picks.

Deter – Mineral Reef Safe Sunscreen SPF 30

  • Best for: All skin types
  • Active ingredients: Titanium Dioxide 6% and Zinc Oxide 6% (Non-nano)

Deter’s Mineral Reef Safe Sunscreen ($11.99) does a great job in protecting your skin from the damaging effects of UV rays, but its non-irritating formula also supports skin health. Enriched with a combination of carrot and green tea extracts, botanicals, and vitamins to effectively nourish your skin and to prevent signs of premature aging.

The best part? The fragrance-free formula is incredibly lightweight and feels super comfortable on your skin.

All Good – SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen Lotion, Water Resistant

  • Best for: Sensitive skin types
  • Active ingredients: Zinc Oxide 16% (Non-nano)

All Good’s SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen Lotion ($15.99) is one of the best choices if you intend on getting pretty active in the sun! You get up to 80 minutes of water resistance and it doesn’t leave behind that greasy feeling that comes with most sunscreens.

Formulated with organic green tea, rose hips, buriti oil, and organic chamomile, this sunscreen effectively repairs damaged skin, but also has a calming effect on sensitive skin types.

Babo Botanicals – Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30

  • Best for: Sensitive skin types
  • Active ingredients: Zinc Oxide 19.0% (Non-nano)

Babo Botanicals’ Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion($12.78) works great for those with super sensitive skin, and it’s also safe enough to be used on kids or babies. Formulated with Zinc Oxide and certified organic oils, this product is hypoallergenic and delivers a high level of hydration to your skin.

Coola – Mineral Body Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50, Fragrance-Free

  • Best for: Sensitive skin types
  • Active ingredients: Zinc Oxide 7.25% (Non-nano) and Titanium Dioxide 3.5%

Coola’s Mineral Body Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50 ($36) is ideal for sensitive skin types. The ultra-hydrating formula is rich in antioxidants and contains 70%+ certified organic ingredients.

What’s great about this sunscreen is that it does a phenomenal job in nourishing your skin while offering Broad Spectrum SPF 50 mineral protection. Another bonus? It provides your skin with a sheer finish!

Protect your skin and the environment with a reef-safe sunscreen!

If you haven’t already made the switch to a reef-safe sunscreen, there's no reason to wait any longer!

As a consumer, it’s essential for us to understand how our day-to-day decisions (no matter how small they seem) can have a profound impact on the detriment of our environment.

Making the switch to a reef-safe sunscreen is a very small price to pay (considering most reef-safe sunscreens are relatively inexpensive) to reduce the human contribution to a massive global issue that continues to threaten our underwater environments.

Have you tried any of the sunscreens mentioned in this post? What are your favorite reef-safe, cruelty-free sunscreens?

Suzana Rose

Suzana Rose

Suzana Rose is the founder and editor-in-chief of Ethicalista. She loves using her creative energy to run her ethical businesses, and when she’s not working, you can find her thrifting cute clothes, listening to podcasts, or rewatching her favorite episodes of The Office.

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