Traditional sunscreen isn’t all it’s chalked up to be. Sure, it’ll protect you from the sun’s harmful rays but it’s also laden with chemicals that are not only harmful to the oceans and reefs but are also toxic to your body.
Oxybenzone and octocrylene are active ingredients in most traditional sunscreens. Not only can they contribute to coral bleaching, but they can even affect humans’ endocrine or hormone systems in the body. The solution: out with chemical lotions and sprays, in with mineral sunscreen.
Chemical sunscreens offer protection by dissipating UV rays, however, they can absorb into the skin. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, form a layer on top of your skin to reflect the UV rays away from the body.
Unlike chemical sunscreens, mineral sunscreens use natural minerals as the active ingredients, so they are healthier for both your body and the reefs — and, any other natural bodies of water where you swim.
Reef-Safe Sunscreens: What to Look For
When shopping for a reef-safe sunscreen, you’ll want to avoid ingredients like oxybenzone, oxtinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and avobenzone. Instead, look for sunscreens whose active ingredients are minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and natural oils for skin hydration.
You’ll want to make sure that the minerals are non-nano to ensure that they are safe for the corals. It can be helpful to look for reef-safe labels, but some companies are guilty of false advertising. So, be sure to double-check the ingredient list.
Here are our favorite reef-safe sunscreens on the market.
Developed by an ocean lifeguard with a vision of creating a natural sunscreen, Raw Elements is committed to education, environmental awareness, and sun safety. And 23% non-nano zinc oxide is the only active ingredient. All the products contain certified natural and organic ingredients. Additionally, Raw Elements’ sunscreens are hypoallergenic and contain no fragrances, preservatives, or chemicals.
Made in the USA, Raw Elements is Non-GMO Project approved, Leaping Bunny (no animal testing) certified, EWG #1 rated, and Natural Products Association certified. Many of its sunscreens come in plastic-free packaging. Its range of products includes tinted and natural face and body sunscreen, sunscreen sticks, kids’ creams, and “lip rescue.”
Raw Elements has been my go-to reef-safe sunscreen for years due to the fact that it’s reasonably priced, rubs in fairly well, and contains ingredients I recognize.
Founded by a group of lifelong surfers, athletes, and outdoor enthusiasts, Manda is on a mission to provide organic, food-grade suncare solutions that work.
All of its products feature high-quality, natural ingredients you recognize, with non-nano zinc oxide being the active ingredient. The most unique ingredient on its list is Thanaka, a sustainable, regenerative ingredient from the bark of a tree native to Myanmar. Thanaka has been used for over 2,000 years as a natural sun protectant. The addition of renewable Thanaka allows Manda to minimize its environmental footprint.
Manda’s line of suncare products is short but thorough. It includes organic sun paste that is thick and well suited for the face, as well as an organic sun paste that does wonders in protecting the body.
Its sunscreens are thick, providing maximum protection but the sun paste can be rubbed in a bit if you work at it. The tint in the sun paste is courtesy of cocoa powder, so it smells like chocolate. Who doesn’t love chocolate?
Born on the beaches of Oahu, Little Hands is Hawaii’s only locally made, plastic-free sunscreen approved by the FDA.
Little Hands’ goal is to preserve your skin and the environment. So, it makes its sunscreens with non-nano zinc oxide, organic coconut oil, beeswax, raw shea butter, jojoba oil, vitamin E oil, frankincense oil, and elderberry. Safe for all ages, the Little Hands collection includes tinted and natural sunscreen tins and face sticks to cover all the bases.
The sunscreen feels good going on — the face sunscreen stays on thick, to offer the protection you need for long days in the sun. And the body cream rubs in so you’re not walking around looking like a ghost all day.
I use the face stick religiously for long surfs under the Hawaiian sun, and it’s kept me burn-free all summer long. I even smear some on my lips when I need a little extra protection.
In 2010, a search for an effective, natural, and sustainable sunscreen led to thoroughly researching the traditional ingredients used in natural medicine and ethnopharmacology. The results of the research, coupled with some green chemistry, eventually resulted in Avasol.
In an effort to be eco-conscious, Avasol offers bio-based and refillable packaging. Additionally, the company uses only the finest natural and organic ingredients that are certified Fair Trade. Its line of products includes a cream and a face stick, both of which are available in four different tint options, so it’s easy to match your skin tone.
Unlike traditional sunscreens, Avasol’s creams aren’t oily, nor do they run, so you don’t have to worry about getting any in your eyes. The sunscreen feels good against the skin and is lightweight and breathable, so it’s easy to wear all day long.
Inspired by a campfire discussion during a surf trip, Feel Good Inc. is the brainchild of three adventure-seeking couples who sought a sunscreen that they could feel good about using.
Australia-based Feel Good’s products are free from parabens, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and PABAs, and add in vitamin E and aloe vera to hydrate the skin. Although not as natural as some other reef-safe brands, Feel Good’s sunscreens avoid the worst of the toxic chemicals and feel luxurious against the skin.
Its sunscreen line is extensive and includes Feel Good’s signature sunscreen, coconut sunscreen, sensitive-skin sunscreen, sticky zinc, cocoa lip balm, and baby mineral sunscreen. I appreciate the wide selection and love the lightweight feel of the sunscreen against the skin.
Designed to keep you covered day in and day out, Kokua Sun Care features high-performance, broad-spectrum protection that rubs in clear.
Safe for both the reef and your skin, Kokua’s products include 23 antioxidants (seven local to Hawaii) to help nourish the skin. The only active ingredient is non-nano zinc oxide — the company uses the highest percentage available (25%) to ensure maximum protection.
Its product line includes a natural zinc sunscreen and a natural sun healing serum, should you forget to apply and end up looking like a lobster. Featuring a hula dancer and muted earth tones, the packaging will take you straight to the tropics while protecting you from the harsh sun.
The sunscreen feels lightweight and smooth against the skin and is easier to rub in than most mineral sunscreens, making it perfect to wear during long days in the sun.
In Hawaiian, “kuleana” means accepting responsibility with diligence and intent. At Mama Kuleana, its sunscreens are made with that sentiment in mind: to protect your skin as well as the future of our lakes, oceans, and rivers.
Mama’s sunscreen is packaged in 100% microplastic-free, fully biodegradable, and compostable screwtop bio jars. The broad-spectrum water- and sweat-resistant sunscreen inside contains non-nano zinc as the main ingredient.
The fact that the packaging is fully biodegradable, the sunscreen itself smells good and feels good against the skin — it’s a winner.
Coola is passionate about creating product experiences that “embody a happy, healthy lifestyle,” and its wide range of products has everything you could ever need, and more. Its line of sunscreens includes face sunscreens, sprays, lotions, face sticks, lip balms, mineral lipsticks, and even a hair and scalp mist.
Standout features in its product line are recyclable, sugarcane-based tubes; plant-derived oleosome technology to optimize performance; and an antioxidant-rich “Plant Protection” to help fight free radicals and hydrate the skin. In addition to being reef-safe, Coola products are vegan, too.
While all of Coola’s products are certified reef-safe, they aren’t all mineral-based. Luckily, Coola does have a number of mineral sunscreens available, so just be sure and double-check the labels before purchasing.
Coola’s sunscreens feel remarkably lightweight against the skin, and they give that extra nourishment your skin needs after long days in the sun.
A family-owned company, Badger is in the business of creating pure and effective products through trustworthy and ecological business practices. Badger boasts its commitment to protecting the environment — only using ingredients that are organic, regenerative, and biodynamic. Additionally, they are USDA Organic, NSF, and Fair Trade certified.
Badger’s line of suncare products includes traditional, sport, active, baby, lip balm, and after-sun cream — so you’re covered regardless of your choice of activity. While many zinc sunscreens leave a white sheen, Badger offers clear zinc that can be rubbed in, which is a game-changer. Badger advertises that it cares about employees, customers, and the environment — and its products uphold those values.
Protekt Sunscreen was founded by Nick Norris, Tim Duba, and pro surfer Mark Healey. The company specifically makes reef-safe, zinc-based sunscreen — tailored to be as safe as possible both for your skin and the oceans, and water-resistant as well.
Protekt’s sunscreens are reef-safe, meaning they have zero parabens or chemicals (its main ingredients include 20% non-nano zinc, beeswax, coconut and jojoba oils, and aloe vera). They are also certified organic. And, our staff found they have a really great water-resistance level (80-90 minutes).
The brand’s hallmark sunscreen is its SPF 30 lotion, but it also offers convenient face sticks, tinted sunscreen, and SPF lip balms too. Still not sure? The veteran-owned brand offers a 60-day guarantee.