The best reef-safe sunscreens can be expensive! Here’s how to protect the reefs, your family, and not spend more than you have to with cheap mineral sunscreens. Plus, I have some sunscreen money-saving tips for you.
The average per-ounce price of my top 7 recommended sunscreens from the massive safe, natural sunscreen review is (gulp) over $7. That means that for a fairly standard 3-ounce tube, which is really quite small, you’re paying over $15 (and could be up toward $30).
Technically, an adult should use that tube up in just 3 applications on their full body. Ouch.
Finding Cheap Reef-Safe Sunscreen
What’s a large family on a budget to do?
Spreading the lotion more thinly so that you use less reduces its SPF – in fact, it’s thought that most people attempting to apply an SPF 15 actually spread it on at about a “5” effectiveness.
Never fear! The mission of Kitchen Stewardship® has always been to help you balance your health, environment, time AND budget, and we CAN find reef-safe sunscreens that will do it all!
I do recommend that you use sunscreen to protect your skin from the damaging rays of the sun – but not all sunscreens actually improve your health. You can read more of my safe sunscreen research in the review and also in the science geek post about skin cancer, Vitamin D and more. Bottom line? Ditch the chemical sunscreens and choose one that won’t hurt the reefs, potentially cause cancer or be hormone-disrupting. Mineral sunscreens are the way to go.
Oxybenzone, an active ingredient found in over 70% of common sunscreens, also hurts coral reefs, and many of the ingredients in conventional sunscreens wash into the waterways and cause problems. Luckily, same answer: most mineral sunscreens are reef-safe. Legislation in Hawaii will ban oxybenzone in the state, and I predict others will follow.
READ MORE: The Safe Sunscreen Ingredients
Bad news here. Spray sunscreens are NOT the way to save time, even though they’re so darn convenient. The best way to save time applying sunscreen? Apply less. I’ll tell you how to do it safely below.
There are three ways to save budget on reef-safe and natural sunscreens – so let’s get started breaking them down!
How to Be Cheap with Reef-Safe Sunscreen
#1: Use Less Sunscreen by Staying in the Shade
Many professionals recommend keeping out of direct sunlight between the hours of 10a-2p anyway, so if you can, seek shade. You should only have to apply sunscreen for the hours you are IN the sun, and with zinc oxide-based creams, you only have to reapply if it gets wiped or washed off.
If our family is out somewhere for more than a few hours, we often do reapply on our faces, because it’s likely that we’re wiping them with our hands even if we’re not swimming. Kids wipe their sweat off, itch their noses, etc. (Adults too!). Personally, I don’t always reapply on arms and legs unless we’re out for a very long time in the direct, midday heat – like a soccer tournament.
Whenever we can, we do seek shade in the very heat of the day, like bringing a cabana for the kids to hide in at a soccer tournament and umbrellas for the adults. It’s impossible (and not very fun) however to be shaded all the time, so I’m so grateful to have safe options for sun protection that I know will really work!
There are a LOT of beach cabanas available now; I can’t even find the one we own, but here are a few with good reviews that look nice to me:
- pop up instant cabana
- beach tent popup (looks like it will shade slightly on all sides)
- quick cabana sun shelter (open just on one side) this looks very similar to the one we have
- lightweight beach shelter with carry bag
#2: Use Less Sunscreen by Wearing More Clothing
Seriously, busy moms – this tip is GOLDEN.
I can only imagine how many 100s of minutes I’ve saved because my family all wear rash guards every time we swim. Particularly for my husband and 3 boys, that’s a lot of skin that we DON’T have to put sunscreen on back and front!
Plus this is the perfect way to save money by investing wisely. You can find very inexpensive rash guards in just about any swimsuit section nowadays, for maybe $10-15 apiece. If you have a child who will grow out of it in a year or two and don’t need to plan ahead for hand-me-downs, go for it!
Just like bathing suits though, rash guards have a huge risk of getting stretched out, snagged, faded, etc. The less expensive ones that we’ve accrued over the years probably aren’t going to make it down to Gabe, boy number 3 in our family. Our only girl usually wears hers right out until they droop to her knees!
On the other hand, my husband has had the same Coolibar rash guard since 2010 when we started this whole sun protection journey, and it’s still in quite incredible shape. You can just tell the fabric is better than other shirts we’ve tried over the years, even for adults.
When he bought one randomly a few years back to make sure he had two shirts, that one not only didn’t hang as nicely when wet but also died within a few years and we got rid of it!
Longevity/quality wise, we’ve also had very good luck with Lands End swimwear, and they have a lifetime guarantee (I believe) on all their products. They almost always have some sort of coupon going too, so don’t buy without one!
My site editor, Robyn’s family swears by SwimZip suits. “The zipper in the front makes them easy to get on and off little ones and they are high quality so they last. They also have a line of sun safe clothing for the whole family, Shedo Lane, that is the softest material I’ve ever owned. I can’t get my toddler to wear anything but her Shedo Lane dress now!” – Robyn
Whether you buy a more expensive rash guard because you’re planning to keep it a long time or a $10 one-year thing, you’ll still save at least that much in sunscreen if you’re an active, outdoor family.
- Coolibar rash guards on Amazon
- Lands End rash guards
- SwimZip rash guards and suits
- Shedo Lane
- All rash guards on Amazon
Be sure to divide the price of the shirt by the total number of years you hope to have it. It can feel CRAZY and not frugal at all to buy a $50+ shirt, but if you can use it for ten years like my husband will be able to, that’s only ~$5/year or equivalent to about one-third of a tube of sunscreen. It’s a good deal when you’re logical about it and not just looking for “cheap.”
We also have had some sun hats from Coolibar for 8 years now, and they’re both in excellent, top-notch shape. We love this bucket hat and this baseball cap style with drape, and you can get the bucket hat without the chin strap for older kids. There are many other brands of sun hats for kids available on Amazon too, and I’m actually excited to see more and more people “getting the message” about this important habit!!
I just can’t speak to the longevity of the other brands – we had one from Target long ago and it wasn’t as nice of a material, but worse, it wasn’t as deep and didn’t stay on as well. The Velcro tab on the Coolibar hat is AMAZING for keeping it on all sizes of heads! It seriously will even stay on 95% of the time when on a fast-moving speedboat in all that wind.
Coolibar does have sun hats, for swim and otherwise, for all ages (link goes to Amazon). Some are very stylish!
#3: Buy Cheap Reef-Safe Sunscreen – that still works!
When a reader with a large family lamented the fact that one of my less expensive “other good brands” of cheap mineral sunscreen had gone out of business, I was inspired to dig deeper into the numbers and find a frugal and cheap reef-safe sunscreen option for families. I found it!
The photo above is our “second tier” group of sunscreen recommendations from 2018. Conveniently right in the middle is the best deal of the entire review, and three others also make our “you can afford this” list (along with just one from the very top recommended tier).
The Best Cheap Reef-Safe Sunscreen
We reviewed Tropical Sands Coral Safe by Mexitan in our very first round of testing in 2010 and LOVED the formula. It was later demoted for micronized zinc oxide while I was still learning about the safety of that size of particle, and I believe the original also included Vitamin A, a no-no for the sun. GREAT news – it’s been reformulated, and although the ingredients aren’t perfect, they’re worlds above conventional sunscreen.
The SPF 30 includes both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and while titanium dioxide is not my favorite, I don’t avoid it like artificial sweeteners or anything. It does include soybean oil, take note if you have allergies, and there’s a not-so-natural preservative in there (sodium benzoate), but even that is pretty ubiquitous in the world.
We tested in 2017/18 again and although it’s not “as good” as it used to be as far as how well it rubs in, this brand is up there playing with the big dogs as far as a bottle we’ll grab willingly and not just because we have to test something. 😉
The best part? You can get an 8-ounce bottle, twice as big as most other brands offer, for just about $2.25/ounce – less than half what most superb brands will run you.
And the better than best part? If you really do have a big family, go with this:
That’s a 3-pack of cheap reef-safe sunscreen from Mexitan’s website! Keep in mind when planning ahead that you should use it up in 2-3 years or so, and that shouldn’t be a problem for large families or those who spend lots of time in the sun. The zinc oxide never degrades or loses effectiveness, but the oils in the sunscreen can turn rancid over time.
Grabbing a 3-pack of cheap reef-safe sunscreen means you’re only paying about $1.90/ounce. Mexitan even offers free shipping on all US orders. Now we’re talking frugal!
One word of caution: We thought the SPF 50 was terrible, wayyyy too white to even deal with! So stick with the SPF 30, which is the better deal anyway.
If you’re brave enough to DIY your sunscreen, here’s a DIY sunscreen recipe from my friend Jess.
More Cheap Reef-Safe Sunscreens
Other brands of cheap mineral sunscreen that are under $4/ounce that we would use in our home:
- Kabana in the 8-ounce size
- Dr. Mercola (large 8-ounce bottle)
- thinkbaby and thinksport
- Babo Botanicals
- Goddess Garden (depending on the type you buy)
- Blue Lizard Australian Suncream
- Kiss My Face (sometimes this one creeps above $4/ounce FYI!)
- Beauty by Earth (This one crept up to $5/ounce)
- If you’d like to get a stick, which I think lasts longer for faces and is easier to apply to kids especially, Raw Elements (plus save 10% more with the coupon KS10!!), Badger stick and Babo Sport Shield are looking to be the most economical. Purple Prairie still takes the win for sticks though, because theirs is 4 times the size of most! It does use micronized zinc oxide so may not be reef safe, but that’s (hopefully) better than nano-sized.
You don’t have to compromise on your health and the environment when you swim and play outside in the sun.
Another Reason to Use Reef-Safe Sunscreens
Plus, one more awesome thing about avoiding chemical sunscreens? You may spend less $$ replacing ruined clothing.
My mom just called lamenting that a bunch of clothing she wore in Florida got rust stains all over from the washing machine there…but then she realized that my dad’s clothing was fine. A little research revealed that Avobenzone, the only chemical sunscreen active ingredient that truly screens for UVA rays (the cancer-causing ones!!) must be washed off your skin with soap or it will invisibly get on your clothing when you change. More on that Avobenzone fiasco and why it’s even worse than I thought HERE!
Then when you run it through the washer, you get rusty-looking spots all over. Disaster!
Here’s my theory on why this is going to be happening a lot more and will surprise people who have long used the same brand of sunscreen:
The FDA finally wised up a few years ago and released some new regulations for sunscreens. One is that the term “broad spectrum” can only be on formulas that protect sufficiently and in a balanced manner from both UVA and UVB rays.
Many sunscreens protected effectively from UVB rays, the burning ones, because that’s what consumers could experience and understand, but they weren’t all doing their job against the cancer-causing rays. Now they’re scrambling to catch up and mostly having to balance their formulas with Avobenzone. (*cue ominous music*)
Guess what sunscreen ingredient is already broad spectrum all by itself, no balancing needed?
That’s right. Our friend zinc oxide.
Slather up, folks – buy the big bottle of the cheap reef-safe sunscreen.
Too much to look through right now?
I organized alllll the sunscreens we reviewed in their recommendation category – one page at-a-glance to find out what is safe to buy AND works! Print it or save to your phone for reference!
The guide also includes answers to questions people ask me all the time:
- Which brand rubs in the clearest?
- What’s the best for all day outdoor sports?
- How do I save money on natural sunscreens?
- What looks good on ladies’ faces?
- Is there an option that is FAST to apply to wiggly kids?
I’ll send a copy to your email so you can see it right away and find it again later!