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What You Need to Know About Reef-Safe Sunscreen

If you just want the quick guide to the best reef-safe sunscreens, see my top recommended brands on my sunscreen review! If you want to know why it’s important to use reef-safe sunscreens and why you can’t trust the big brands to look out for the environment then keep reading!

We all know that sometimes following the letter of the law is far different than what’s actually effective and needed.

Those of us who are parents know it more than any!

Mom: I thought I said to stop poking your sister!

Son: I’m not poking, mom! I’m doing exactly what you asked!

Daughter: Yeah, now he’s punching me!

Mom: Whoa! Okay, now stop touching your sister in any way!

(verbal annoying commences)

If that’s ever been your backseat, I’m sure you’re not alone.

And right now when it comes to saving our coral reefs and also protecting humans’ health and safety, and especially our kids’ reproductive development, it feels like the big brands of sunscreen have commenced with the punching instead of poking, and then making annoying noises.

fish on coral reef

What do I mean? Let’s talk about some new sunscreen laws, what the research actually shows, how this connects to human health and safety, the big brands and greenwashing (aka punching their sister), and how you can follow the spirit of the law to actually save the coral reefs and protect our children.

The New Reef Safe Sunscreen Law in Hawaii

Here at Kitchen Stewardship®, we’ve been closely following the legislation in Hawaii banning two of the most offensive conventional sunscreen ingredients: oxybenzone, and octinoxate.

I was overjoyed when the bill in Hawaii passed into law and finally went into effect in January 2021.

This law does not allow for two ingredients to be sold or used. In Hawaii.

The bill’s purpose is to protect the coral reefs in the delicate and beautiful ecosystem surrounding Hawaii. It ends up supporting human health and healing as well.

More states and countries must follow.

However, because it only tackles two ingredients, it opens the door for confusion.

Many people are now thinking that if oxybenzone and octinoxate are not in a sunscreen formula, then it is magically reef safe. That is false.

While the law in Hawaii is a step in the right direction there are many other ingredients that have been proven to or are likely to harm the coral reefs. Therefore, reef-safe sunscreen cannot only follow the letter of the law.

coral reefs dying

Upcoming Sunscreen Ingredient Bans Coming

As if to prove the point, Hawaii has another bill in consideration that would ban avobenzone and octocrylene two other reef offending sunscreen chemical ingredients.

This still won’t quite be enough to completely protect the coral reefs from what we humans slather all over our skin, but it’s another step in the right direction.

Ultimately, in order to find truly reef-safe sunscreen, you need to see active ingredients that contain only zinc oxide or titanium dioxide and the formula should also be free of parabens and triclosan at the minimum.

RELATED: Chemical vs. mineral sunscreen: what’s the difference?

How the Big Sunscreen Brands Try to Trick You With Clever Marketing

When the law banning oxybenzone and octinoxate went into effect, brands basically had three choices.

  1. Ignore Hawaii’s law and continue with all the toxic formulas.
  2. Remove only the banned ingredients and try to sell Hawaii reef-safe sunscreen.
  3. Do the right thing and remove all reef offending ingredients to protect the entire earth and everything that lives on it.

If you are a cynical realist like me, you may have guessed that most of the big brands went with option two because they are taking the easiest path to profit.

It’s really important to understand that their language tricks you into buying their products. That’s why you’ll suddenly see a host of new sunscreen formulas boasting the phrase “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly” on their packaging.

Unfortunately, these terms are not regulated. So brands can say whatever they want, about how they do or do not protect the coral reefs.

I can guarantee you that when you turn over the bottle of most “reef-friendly” sunscreens you will see many chemical ingredients. They will have only removed oxybenzone and octinoxate.

My friends, do not believe what’s on the front of the bottle.

sunscreen on the beach

What’s the Difference Between Reef-Safe and Reef-Friendly?

Wouldn’t it be nice though, if either “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly” labels would be able to help you find a sunscreen formula that’s actually safe for humans too?

Unfortunately, with no regulation “reef-safe” and “reef-friendly” are used synonymously and neither of them means anything.

This is so unfortunate because 10 years ago, buying a sunscreen that said “reef-safe” gave you about a 95-99% chance that it would not only protect the coral reefs but also be safe for your children’s endocrine system, (their hormones) as well as being anti-carcinogenic as opposed to potentially causing cancer.

RELATED: Chemical sunscreens get into your bloodstream! That can’t be good

Now however the waters are murkier. If my eye is drawn to the words “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly,” in a product description or packaging, I know that I have about a 50/50 chance of passing my standards.

“If you think you’re in the clear as long as you buy a sunscreen labeled “reef-safe,” think again,” Craig Downs, Ph.D. from Haereticus Labs says.

“The federal government requires sunscreen claims to be “truthful and not misleading,” but the term “reef-safe” doesn’t have an agreed-upon definition and therefore isn’t strictly regulated by the government.

“This means sunscreen manufacturers aren’t required to test and demonstrate that such products won’t harm aquatic life,” Downs says, “and even if they did and found a sunscreen that passed this test, it might still be harmful if concentrations in the water got high enough.”1

The Kahalu’u Bay Education Center in Hawaii reminds us emphatically that the only way to be sure you’re buying truly reef-safe sunscreen is to read the active ingredients.

They recommend, as I do, only zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, nothing else in the actives, and they also remind that many brands sell BOTH, so you have to read every label, every time.2

Ignore “reef-friendly” greenwashed labels, use mineral sunscreens, and trust that you are doing the best for your family by avoiding the hazards of sunburn and the even greater hazards of endocrine-disrupting, carcinogenic, conventional sunscreen ingredients.

Share This Video to Spread the Word About Reef-Safe Sunscreen!

What Sunscreens are Bad for Reefs?

Most of them that you can find in the store!

The bottom line here is that if sunscreens have any words that you don’t recognize under their active ingredients, the chances are that research has been or is being done to prove that they are unfriendly or toxic to coral reefs.

The only sunscreens that we know of now that aren’t killing the reefs have active ingredients of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. It sounds like there are even nuances within those ingredients, and it’s something I need to do some more research on.

There may actually be some types of zinc oxide that are also harmful to coral reefs. For starters, I would avoid nanoparticles of zinc. There are just too many questions about both health and environmental safety.

coral reef

The bottom line is that most sunscreens on the market, especially those sold in pharmacies, and big-box stores, are not safe for coral reefs.

I’ll take a minute and walk through some of the most popular brands to help you out.

Is Sun Bum Sunscreen Reef-Safe?

Sun Bum used to have oxybenzone, some formulas don’t, but this one has been totally greenwashed! Their regular line still includes avobenzone 3.00%, homosalate 10.00%, octisalate 5.00%, octocrylene 10.00%, and the preservative methylisothiazolinone which has plenty of questions for human health and safety.

The mineral line uses only mineral active ingredients, but the percentage is very low compared to the most effective sunscreens I’ve reviewed. Yes, Sun Bum’s mineral line is reef-safe, most likely

I still wouldn’t bother, simply because when a brand sells both, and especially when they somehow get a “natural” reputation, it just confuses consumers. In my book, Sun Bum is a no-go

Is Raw Love Sunscreen Reef-Safe?

raw love reef safe sunscreen

Yes!

Raw Love sunscreen is formulated and made in Hawaii by folks who love their oceans. It uses only zinc oxide and other very clean “you could eat them” type ingredients. Hearty recommendation for human and ecological health! 

Purchase Raw Love here on their site. (Get 10% off with code KS10)

Is Blue Lizard Sunscreen Reef-Safe?

Not really. 

Blue Lizard includes octisalate in most formulas except sensitive. The Kohala Center’s reef-friendly sun protection guide doesn’t allow for that petrochemical ingredient, although it’s not on the harmful reef damaging list from Haereticus Labs. 

Blue Lizard’s website says this in their FAQs: “Mineral-based sunscreens combine mineral and chemical UV protectors for performance you can trust.” I can’t trust that

Plus I dislike it when an entire brand isn’t reef-safe; it gets confusing to easily know what’s ok for our health and what’s not. I want to work with companies that have an unswerving commitment to caring for our ecosystems.

Is Equate Sunscreen (from Walmart) Reef-Safe?

Nope. Not even close

Equate Sunscreen’s active ingredients include: avobenzone 3%, homosalate 15%, octisalate 5%, octocrylene 10%, oxybenzone 6%.

Oxybenzone is the worst reef offender in the world, and a few of the others are pegged for likely harming ocean life as well. 

You’ll save money buying Equate, but you won’t save the reefs (or your future grandchildren). Put that one back on the shelf. 

Is Raw Elements Reef-Safe?

raw elements reef safe sunscreen

Absolutely! 

Raw Elements sunscreen was founded by a lifeguard and surfer who deeply cares for the oceans. The brand takes great pains to use excellently sourced, perfectly safe ingredients

They also sponsored the excellent Reefs at Risk documentary short film and partnered with Hawaiian airlines to share samples for travelers while screening the film. 

You can purchase Raw Elements sunscreen here and use the code “KS10” for 10% off your order.

Is Supergoop Sunscreen Reef-Safe? 

Supergoop does a good job greenwashing by listing all the ingredients you’ll never see in their products, many of which are never in sunscreen anyway.

Unfortunately, MOST Supergoop products are NOT reef safe. For example, Supergoop Unseen sunscreen contains avobenzone, 3%, homosalate 8%, octisalate 5%, octocrylene 4%. This doesn’t include the worst offenders that are already banned in Hawaii, but as you know by now, two more are coming soon to be banned, and Supergoop utilizes them. 

Supergoop does have a mineral line that is likely reef-safe, and also a “clean chemical” line. Does that sound ironic to anyone else?

Is Coola Reef-Safe? 

People ask me about Coola all the time, and I can see why – most of their formulas use the word “organic” in the name, which makes people think that the lotion must be “natural.”

Ironically, zinc oxide can’t be organically certified, because it’s just a rock. By definition, it’s not organic, and it would never need pesticides or any chemicals to “grow” it. Get it? That always makes me laugh. 

The other ingredients might be organic — let’s take a look.

Ohhhhh, snap! 

Coola uses ZERO mineral actives and only petrochemicals in most formulas (which by definition can’t be organic either, because they’re basically petroleum/plastic). There are a few versions with zinc oxide only, but for whatever reason, they’re harder to find. (Examples include Full Spectrum 360 Mineral Sun Silk Creme, Full Spectrum Mineral Sun silk Moisturizer Organic Face Sunscreen, Mineral Body Organic Sunscreen Lotion – Tropical Coconut) 

To Coola’s credit, the formulas do not contain those sunscreen ingredients banned in Hawaii, but they’re far from reef-safe. Leave it behind with all the other greenwashed packaging you’re too smart to fall for. 

Coola as a brand is simply too confusing to be called “reef-safe” and I don’t recommend them. 

Is Banana Boat Reef-Safe? 

Mostly, nope. 

Banana Boat is a Big Sunscreen brand that will take careful scrutiny to find a reef-safe formula. 

One of Banana Boat’s lines may be reef-safe as listed on Hawaii.com’s site: Banana Boat Simply Protect SPF 50+ Sunscreen (spray, not lotion) gets their thumbs up, but I would still recommend checking the label as brands change formulas often. Simply Protect uses only minerals, but some of the inactive ingredients aren’t my favorites

Working with the big brands takes a lot of reading and re-reading, and to me, it’s just not worth it. I trust the little guys who care for the earth beyond profits. 

coral reefs dying

Is Elta MD Reef-Safe Sunscreen? 

It depends. 

Elta MD has MANY formulas, and while some utilize zinc oxide only in the active ingredient (example: UV Glow Tinted Broad-Spectrum SPF 36), others include octanoate, which is already identified as a coral reef danger and banned in Hawaii, or octocrylene, which is next on the chopping block. 

So is Elta MD reef safe? I believe the company would like you to think they create natural sunscreen, but you still have to read everything VERY carefully to avoid greenwashing

Is Neutrogena Sunscreen Reef-Safe? 

Most of the time, NO. 

Neutrogena has so many different formulas, and not only do most of them use conventional petrochemical sunscreens that definitely harm coral reefs but the brand was also very prominent on a 2021 expose on dangerously high levels of benzene

Personally, with so many wonderful reef-safe, mineral-only sunscreens available, I wouldn’t touch Neutrogena with a 10-foot pole, because I don’t feel that I can trust the company to look out for my interests or those of our oceans. 

Is CopperTone Pure & Simple Reef-Safe?

What a relief!

Finally, a big brand who figured out how to make a natural, reef-safe sunscreen! CopperTone Pure & Simple uses only zinc oxide in the actives, and the inactive ingredients don’t contain anything else that may harm coral reefs. 

The ingredients aren’t as clean as my top recommended tier, for sure, but if you’re in a pinch and can only find CopperTone Pure & Simple in a store, I’d grab some

One concern: CopperTone doesn’t disclose whether the formula uses nanoparticles of zinc oxide, which would call into question both reef safety and human safety.

Also note that while the original Pure & Simple formula has decent reviews on the CopperTone site, the “baby” version looks abysmal. Almost everyone reports that it doesn’t work and allowed serious burns. To be fair, reviews on Amazon across the Pure & Simple line are all above 4 stars, so it may be a “try it for yourself” situation, but not on a long beach day the first time

Note that reef safety applies to the lotion and the stick, but I never recommend sprays, no matter what. Spray sunscreens have far too many dangers and questions around them

boy wearing mineral sunscreen

Does CVS Carry Reef-Safe Sunscreen? 

Yes!

CVS actually carries quite a few reef-safe, mineral-only sunscreens, including

  • Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Sensitive Skin Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 50
  • Neutrogena Pure & Free Baby Mineral Sunscreen with SPF 50
  • Australian Gold Botanical SPF 50 Tinted Face Mineral Sunscreen Lotion
  • Aveeno Baby Continuous Protection Zinc Oxide Mineral Sunscreen
  • La Roche-Posay Anthelios Body and Face Mineral Sunscreen Lotion
  • Aveeno Positively Mineral Sensitive Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50
  • Note that many of these are “big brand” sunscreens with other unsavory ingredients, but in a pinch, I’d choose them over conventional sunscreen or getting a serious sunburn. Try to shop from the KS review list online before you go out to play! 

I’m actually really impressed by CVS’s offerings because it’s RARE to find a big box store with mineral options. I didn’t even list them all! 

You’ll still need to read ingredients, but as you know, if you see only “zinc oxide” under the actives, you’re golden, and if it also includes “titanium dioxide,” let’s call it silver. 😉 Still reef-safe, fairly human safe. 

What’s the Best Reef-Safe Sunscreen? 

You can search up this question as many times as you want on all the search engines, and you’ll find PLENTY of big publishers cashing in on people’s confusion

HuffPost, New York Magazine, and Business Insider all jumped on board with their “reviews” as soon as Hawaii began talking about banning a few ingredients.

Sure, those will save you some time reading ingredients, IF you trust the authors to do the work diligently, but is it really a “review” if no one tested the products? Can HuffPo and Business Insider really claim to know anything about “the best” natural sunscreens?

Sure, NY Mag used Amazon reviews to choose theirs, but they also made plenty of blunders by including non-mineral active ingredients on their list

My family and I have tested over 120 mineral sunscreens. I have very high standards for evaluating ingredients and efficacy and we’ve actually put them to the test by using them for years!

Now, what about some of those other sunscreen ingredients? There are plenty that haven’t been banned (yet) but aren’t mineral-based. Are they reef safe? 

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!

Is Avobenzone Reef Safe?

“The molecular structures of oxyBENZONE and avoBENZONE are extremely similar, and both do bad things to users and waterways, especially over the long term.”3 We don’t have enough research on it right now, but that’s no reason to go using it all the time (and a perfect reason to avoid it!).

We DO know that avobenzone degrades in the sun,4 which means it’s not even going to do its job protecting your body from the UVA rays of the sun very long, and some research shows that it has particular toxic effects when mixed with chlorine. Swimming pool, anyone?5

Here’s my breakdown of the research and the laundry hazards of avobenzone, so if being dangerous to your kidneys, liver, and white capris isn’t enough for you to ban it from your home, consider that it’s more likely to be harmful to coral reefs than to be safe, based on the small amount of information we DO have.

Avobenzone is not reef-safe because it hasn’t been proven to be. Don’t use it!

Is Octocrylene Reef Safe? 

Along with avobenzone, octocrylene is on the list of Hawaii’s next Most Wanted Evil Sunscreen Ingredients.

A new bill introduced in 2021 will ban sunscreens containing avobenzone or octocrylene because they’re dangerous to coral reefs and ocean life. This bill (SB132) goes into effect in 2023 if passed. 

A 2014 study points to octocrylene as toxic to the brains and livers of zebrafish, and most likely, as with many products approved by the FDA and later removed, we’ll find many more proven harms to sea life and humans.6

The FDA has already removed GRASE (Generally Recognized as Safe and Effective) status from octocrylene.

Time to check your sunscreen ingredients – if you see this chemical, ditch it!

woman applying sunscreen

Is Homosalate Reef-Safe? 

As with our other petrochemical ingredients, homosalate doesn’t have a lot of research proving that it’s harmful…but it doesn’t have a lot of research proving otherwise either.

Save The Reef lists homosalate on its “ingredients to avoid” list pulled from Haereticus Labs, and they’re not the only organization that is skeptical of this petroleum-based UV screen.7

Stream2Sea, renowned for staying up on current research, pegs homosalate as an endocrine disrupter and shares that the FDA limits this toxic ingredient to less than 10% in a formula because it accumulates in the body faster than it can be eliminated.8 (You can check out Stream2Sea’s sunscreen here and use coupon code kitchenstew for a discount.)

Even if you’re not near an ocean, homosalate washes off your body in the shower and enters the waterways that all of us share. Cut it out! 

RELATED: How to Find Safe Sunscreen Ingredients

Bottom Line: How to Find Reef-Safe Sunscreen

You have three options when it comes to actually making a correct purchase to protect the coral reefs.

  1. Believe what’s on the packaging, and brands tell you they have created a reef-safe or reef-friendly formula. (Tip don’t do this. Brands are not accurate with those terms because they are unregulated.)
  2. Learn the ingredients to watch for. Namely, the active ingredients may only include zinc oxide and or titanium dioxide, and the formula must not include parabens, triclosan, and a handful of other ingredients.
  3. Just use Kitchen Stewardship®‘s extensive research and reviews

Here’s the thing, over the last decade+, I’ve personally tested over 120 natural mineral sunscreens, my standards are very high, and nothing in my top three tiers would be considered dangerous to coral reefs.

Nothing in my top two tiers has ingredients with serious concerns for human safety.

And my top tier with only around a dozen winners is where you really should be spending your time. These formulas are held to the highest standard with rigorous government testing.

Ingredients refined to perfection that most of the time you could practically eat and efficacy and performance tested by the Kimball family in the field.

That top tier has nothing that is difficult to use or has failed and caused sunburns over the years. If you’re looking for the best reef-safe sunscreen, simply start there. Here’s a list of some of my ultimate favorites. 

  • Kōkua Suncare with tons of antioxidants and my kids’ favorite scent and application (use the code KS for 15% off from Kōkua’s online store!)
  • 3rd Rock Essentials rubs in well and reliably prevents burns in our tests (use the code KITCHENSTEW for 20% off!)
  • Raw Elements for so many reasons, including their tinted stick for adult faces (all styles, use KS10 for 10% off!)
  • Maelove, which I call the best “transition” sunscreen when moving away from chemical ‘screens
  • Others that make the top-recommended cut: Badger, ThinkBaby, Adorable Baby, Kabana

If you’re worried about the white cast on your skin from zinc oxide sunscreen, check out my video on how to apply mineral sunscreen correctly to minimize it. 

This is one area where there will be no poking, punching, or annoying verbal noises. Let’s follow the spirit of the law and save those coral reefs as we enjoy our summertime fun.

Do you use reef-safe sunscreen yet?

Footnotes:

  1. Calderone, J. (2021, April 29). The Truth About ‘Reef Safe’ Sunscreen. Retrieved from https://www.consumerreports.org/sunscreens/the-truth-about-reef-safe-sunscreen/
  2. The Kohala Center. (n.d.). Is Your Sun Protection Reef-Friendly?. Retrieved from https://kohalacenter.org/kbec/reef-friendly-sunscreen
  3. Wax Head. (n.d.). Safe in sunscreens? Avobenzone. Retrieved from https://gowaxhead.com/blogs/the-thrive-lab/avobenzone-sunscreens
  4. Karlsson, I., Hillerström, L., Stenfeldt, A. L., Mårtensson, J., & Börje, A. (2009). Photodegradation of dibenzoylmethanes: potential cause of photocontact allergy to sunscreens. Chemical research in toxicology, 22(11), 1881–1892. https://doi.org/10.1021/tx900284e
  5. Lomonosov Moscow State University. (2017, June 28). Sunscreen creams break down into dangerous chemical compounds under the sunlight. Retrieved from https://phys.org/news/2017-06-sunscreen-creams-dangerous-chemical-compounds.html
  6. Blüthgen, N., Meili, N., Chew, G., Odermatt, A., & Fent, K. (2014). Accumulation and effects of the UV-filter octocrylene in adult and embryonic zebrafish (Danio rerio). Science of The Total Environment, 476–477, 207-217. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.01.015.
  7. Save the Reef. (n.d.). Reef Safe Sunscreen Guide. Retrieved from https://savethereef.org/about-reef-save-sunscreen.html
  8. Stream2Sea. (n.d.) Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Avobenzone, and More Sunscreen & Body Care Ingredients to Avoid. Retrieved from https://stream2sea.com/ingredients-to-avoid/
Learn more about non-toxic sunscreen and sun safety:
Sun Protection Trends Finally Moving in the Right Direction
 

(VIDEO Interview with a lawyer and safe sunscreen advocate)

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

2 thoughts on “What You Need to Know About Reef-Safe Sunscreen”

  1. I have always appreciated your sunscreen reviews, and just last year fell in love with Raw Elements. Thank you for all the info you provide!

    1. Carolyn @ Kitchen Stewardship

      So glad to hear Katie’s reviews are helpful for you! Raw Elements is great!

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