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Cheap Reef-Safe Sunscreens

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. 

frugal options for sunscreen

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!

Your Health

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.

The Environment

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

Your Time

Bad news here. Spray sunscreens are NOT the way to save time, even though they’re so darn convenient. Sad smile The best way to save time applying sunscreen? Apply less. I’ll tell you how to do it safely below.

Your Budget

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

Can Safe Sun Protection be Frugal Too 1

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:

#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 sectcoolibar rash guardion 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.

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.”

I’d love to hear in the comments if you have had good (or bad) luck with particular brands to help other KS readers narrow their search!

Save money and time with these tips for staying sun safe all summer long. Hats can help keep you shaded.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!

best frugal natural mineral sunscreen

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.

But be sure to compare price between Amazon and Coral Safe by Mexitan in case there are sales. 

And the better than best part? If you really do have a big family, go with this:

3-pack of Mexitan Tropical Sands reef safe mineral sunscreen

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:

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. Winking smile

What’s your favorite cheap reef-safe sunscreen? Do you have a go to natural 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!

Unless otherwise credited, photos are owned by the author or used with a license from Canva or Deposit Photos.

20 thoughts on “Cheap Reef-Safe Sunscreens”

  1. Hi Katie, I am so grateful for your conscientiousness and generosity in offering all of this info. I clicked through your links on the “cheap” page and found that the Mexitan link is dead, and several others on the “cheap” list are well above $5. There also seem to be several new possibilities on the market. Are you able to please update this list? My super “quick and dirty” quals: $2 or less per ounce, no chemicals, non-nano minerals. Sooo hard to find. Still seeking your help, since 2008! Thanks again : )

    1. Carolyn @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Thanks for letting us know about the broken links! Every year Katie tests out new sunscreens to see what makes her recommended lists, if you have any specific brands you don’t see her cover please feel free to let us know in a comment! I know with inflation going up, the cheap list of sunscreens just won’t be as cheap anymore, but these are still the cheapest options of what Katie has tested and recommends.

  2. Sadly we had a bad experience with Mexitan at the beach this week. It was very hard to apply smoothly and clumped and flaked off very easily. We ended up with some very patchy sunburn even after careful application. So disappointing.

    1. Oh no, Melanie, I hate to hear that! Did you have the SPF 30 or 50? We really disliked the 50. 🙁 I’ve never experienced actual flaking off where portions of skin are unprotected though, yikes! I wonder if the company would stand behind their product and offer a refund. I would hope so!

      Don’t let it sour you on all mineral sunscreens, though – there really are some good ones out there!
      Best, Katie

  3. For adult rash guards, Athleta carries some with super longevity. They are pricey, but I have one that has held its shape and still keeps me paler after 2 seasons of swimming almost every day in it.

    Another frugal recommendation is to time swimming or other outdoor activities so that you are not out during peak sun hours (~10-2). This is especially important if you’re visiting places like Hawaii or California, where the sun is either more intense because of latitude or more unrelenting because of lack of clouds.

    1. This is a great point on timing, Cathy – I never thought of it as “frugal” but just safer in general, avoiding those hottest rays. We always went in for a lunch and rest between 12-2 when we were in Florida on spring break.

      Thanks!
      Katie

  4. Be aware that some rash guards are not going to give you actual SUN protection. Some are only made to prevent irritation from your skin rubbing. I would advise getting swim shirts/jackets that have a UPF rating (like SPF for clothing) or specifically tell you they prevent sun exposure. I love Coolibar’s sun-protective clothing. They have a HUGE selection. My favorite are the swim jackets with a zipper to make them easy to remove when wet. I always wear mine, have had it for years, and it is still in great condition. I also usually wear one of their swim hats if I am not actually swimming laps or anything — I like the baseball cap style more than the bucket hat. As for the frugal sunscreen, the gallon of Mexican is a phenomenal bargain. I know, a gallon sounds like a TON, but consider: if you do not wear sun clothing, you should use about 1 ounce of lotion to cover an adult body. The shelf life of the sunscreen is about 2 years (could be more if stored properly) — so you have a lot of time to use it up! The 128oz/gallon bottle is currently $180 on their website. Then use 15% coupon code (summer2017), get free shipping = $152…. that is just $1.19/ounce!! The only downside, their products are not tinted like Kabana Green Screen or some Badger options. Has anyone tried tinting their sunscreen themselves??

  5. I’ve never even heard of rash guard clothing! So weird, since my son came home yesterday from Port Aransas covered in a rash he claims is from his sunscreen. He could have used that!! Anyway, I am more apt to use the sunscreen, I could never wear all those clothes to the beach, lol. I prefer safe tanning to covering up.

    1. Laura Snell @ Kitchen Stewardship

      Anna, You can read Katie’s review of babyganics, along with tons of other reviews here: https://www.kitchenstewardship.com/natural-mineral-sunscreen-reviews/#Babyganics

  6. Im concerned over the number of metals humans apply to their body, zinc, aluminum, and flouride. Im unaware of any study that has ever shown a positive relationship between a living organism and a metal, short of trace elemants you can get from unrefined sea salt.
    Are you aware of any sunscreens that are plant based and do not contain zinc oxide nor the chemicals you mention?

    Thanks.

    1. Hi Tiege,
      This is a great question. Short answer: nope. There aren’t any, unless you count wearing a nice organic cotton long-sleeved shirt.

      But the real answer is that the zinc oxide in non-nano sunscreen does not absorb into the skin. The particles are too big. So…there isn’t any metal toxicity. Does that make sense? It’s more like wearing a wedding ring than ingesting fluoride or injecting aluminum.

      Thanks for asking!
      Katie

      1. Thanks for the reply. Im not sure about injecting aluminum, but it is in antiperspirant deodorant.

        Im thinking about the cumulative effect of applying a metal to the body. Where does the zinc oxide go? If it doesnt break down, does it just fall off us? Why does it quit working after a while in the sun?

        I feel there are a lot of unanswered questions about the physical properties of zinc. For instance, Zinc is a really good antibiotic, what happens when you wipe out the biome that lives on our body. We are barely coming to an understanding of our relationship to our bacterial biomes we depend on.

        I have lots of questions and i appreciate your work. :).
        Thanks for the discussion.

        1. Tiege,
          Oh, aluminum is in vaccines. Blech.

          The zinc in sunscreen does sit on the surface of the skin. It never stops working as long as it’s there, but people often wipe it off when they use a towel or whatever. Conventional recommendation to reapply every 2 hours is only for chemical sunscreens. So yes, really, it does just fall off (or more likely is washed off). Is zinc oxide a natural abx or another version of zinc? I’ve never heard that before so I’m curious! Thanks! 🙂 katie

          1. I do wonder what all the zinc that makes its way to the ocean (directly from swimming, but also through wastewater after people wash their bodies and towels) will do in the long term for the ocean ecosystem. But I don’t worry about its toxicity for myself or my kids (we usually only put it on our faces and hands usually because we wear long sleeved rash guards and only swim after 4 pm).

  7. Did u say sumwhere about buying zinc oxide and just making a paste or lotion with it? Or why not to?
    If thats the one that does it all, why use sumthing else, like A premade, not so great chemical sunblock?
    The best resolution IS covering up tho, with sunblock for exposed areas. I certainly wudnt mind seeing less skin myself, sun or no sun, but I digress. Wearing Bermuda length shorts, not bikini bottoms, and elbow length sleeves on crewneck tees, not spaghetti topped whatevers…rly takes alot of skin outta the equation.
    Now to figure out facial sunblock for acne prone skin. Cuz the blocks n sweat mix to cause bad outbreaks on so many teens and prone adults.
    Ive taken to wearing big floppy hats but my man hates the look n teens arent about to do it.

    1. Helene,
      I’m very hesitant for people to make their own sunscreen, because it’s not “just” zinc oxide. You want to have antioxidants in there too, and the zinc needs to be properly and evenly distributed and stay that way…there are just so many variables that I’d rather have companies pay for special testing to make sure the SPF is consistent and then I’ll use theirs. 🙂 katie

  8. My children and I are quite fair – I’ve had them in iPlay sun/swim suits (the full body zipper ones) and iPlay sun hats since infancy. They are generously sized so we actually have gotten multiple seasons out of both the suits and hats, and passed them down in great shape! I have used various rash guards and like O’Neill and Lands End. (I will look up the Coolibar shirts for my husband, who tans and resists sun protection of any kind.) So much faster than sunscreen and better than getting a sunburn!!! 🙂

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