Divers, snorkelers, and outdoor enthusiasts alike may be unknowingly damaging the very coral reefs they love to explore. A new study shows that a common UV blocking chemical found in sunscreen, oxybenzone, is extremely damaging to coral.
Oxybenzone contributes to coral bleaching, has been shown to damage the DNA in developed coral, and causes deformations of DNA in coral in the larval stage. This chemical is being found in high concentrations at popular coral reef sites and has been linked to their declining health. If you care about the reefs you should not use sunscreen that contains oxybenzone.
What type of sunscreen is Reef Safe?
Many brands have released their own versions of “reef safe” sunscreen. While purchasing a sunscreen labeled as “all-natural” or “reef safe” may seem like an easy solution to protecting the reefs, a vast majority of these sunscreens contain the very chemicals that damage coral.
An example of this can be seen by looking at the Reef Safe Biodegradable Waterproof SPF 30+ Sunscreen Lotion. This product seems to portray a biodegradable waterproof reef safe sunscreen, but in reality, it contains octinoxate, octisalate, and oxybenzone as active ingredients.
If you take a closer look at the way the product is named you can see where the deception occurs. The name of the brand is “Reef”, and they are offering “Safe Biodegradable Waterproof SPF 30+ Sunscreen Lotion”. This is an extremely deceptive tactic that absolutely infuriates me. This type of misleading marketing can be seen in many different industries and has plagued the natural foods and health-conscious movement.
Products labeled “reef safe”, “green”, “all-natural”, or “environmentally friendly” are rarely governed by a regulatory body, and are sometimes no different than the other products on the shelves (other than their increased price!) Due to this dishonesty it is extremely important to do your research before buying a sunscreen that is marketed as reef safe. Luckily for you, I’ve already done the heavy lifting and in this post, I will take you through an in-depth look at what I consider to be the Best Reef Safe Sunscreens currently on the market.
Method of Review
I’ve used many different types of the most popular reef safe sunscreens over the years and have ranked them based on several different criteria. The 3 most important criterion in this review are; is the sunscreen effective at blocking UV rays, does the sunscreen have a good water resistance (it won’t do you any good if it washes off!), and does the sunscreen provide a good value (price per ounce)?
The chemicals that have shown to cause damage to coral reefs in previous studies include oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidine campho. Sunscreens containing these chemicals were not considered for this list.
The Best Reef Safe Sunscreens
1. Beauty by Earth Mineral Sunscreen SPF 25+
In my opinion, this is the best reef safe sunscreen available on the market. Looking through the ingredients list you will notice that the only active ingredient is Zinc Oxide, and the other ingredients contained in this sunscreen are almost all household names.
The only ingredient in this sunscreen that raises even a slight concern is Tocopheryl Acetate (Vitamin E). Tocopheryl Acetate is thought to contribute to Cancer, Ecotoxicology, and Allergies/immunotoxicity, but at this dosage, it is an extremely low risk and I wouldn’t think twice about it. This is about as natural as sunscreen is going to get.
I was excited to try this sunscreen for the first time due to its natural ingredients and low cost. My initial impressions upon applying the sunscreen were that it was difficult to spread, especially in areas with medium to thick body hair. As I continued to work the sunscreen in I could tell that there was probably going to be a white residue left behind.
While this may seem like a negative, it shows that as advertised, this sunscreen doesn’t contain any nano-particles. The research surrounding nano-particles still needs some work, but early indicators show that it may pose a health risk to both humans and coral. I’d prefer to stay away from nano-particles until more is known about their effects.
Now that I’ve applied the sunscreen it’s time to get in the water for some snorkeling! After nearly 45 minutes of snorkeling I got out of the water to see how the sunscreen fared. The water seems to bead off of my skin and is repelled by the sunscreen. This is the case for most of my body besides my hands and my feet that were in flippers.
The water resistance of this sunscreen is incredible. At this point, I would be comfortable getting back in the water for another snorkeling session without reapplying another round of sunscreen.
If you’re serious about protecting the coral reefs, the difficulty of applying this sunscreen or the white residue it leaves behind shouldn’t be a deterrent. The all natural ingredients, amazing water resistance, and low cost (~$2.65 per ounce) have won me over. This is the sunscreen I will be using whenever I’m swimming in a body of water that is connected to a coral system.
- Great water resistance
- Natural and organic ingredients with no nano-particles
- Cheap ~$2.65 per ounce
- Difficult to rub into skin
- Leaves behind a noticeable white residue
2. Burnout Ocean Tested Physical SPF 30+
The second best reef safe sunscreen that I tested is Burnout Ocean Test Physical SPF 30+. This sunscreen boasts a mostly natural ingredients list, good water resistance, and a biodegradable formula. A friend recommended this brand, and after testing it out for myself I’m pretty happy with the results.
The ingredients of this sunscreen are just as safe, if not safer than the Beauty by Earth Mineral Sunscreen. The only ingredient that raises even a slight concern is Polyaminopropyl Biguanide. This chemical poses an extremely low health risk, but has restricted use in cosmetics in the country of Japan. Moving on from the ingredients lets take a look at my initial impressions when applying this sunscreen for the first time.
This sunscreen is easier to apply then most of the competing zinc oxide based formulas. After working the sunscreen into my skin for a minute or two I noticed that there is only a very slight white residue left behind. This surprised me due to the high zinc oxide content of the sunscreen (20%). The sunscreen seemed to “soak in” rather quickly but unfortunately left behind a heavy, thick, or greasy feeling. This is a minor issue to me, but you can tell you’re wearing sunscreen and consistently feel this sensation on your skin.
After going for a long swim (20+) minutes, I can tell that this sunscreen has very good water resistance and is comparable to the Beauty by Earth Mineral Sunscreen. Both of these sunscreens have higher than average water resistance, which is a strong factor in why they were chosen at #1 and #2. A few days after using this sunscreen I was confronted with dry skin. My skin is not very sensitive and something in the Burnout formula may have irritated it.
I suggest that people who are concerned about a white residue being left behind on their skin from sunscreen application look into this brand. Keep in mind that the downside is that it may feel heavy, thick, or greasy after applying. I also experienced dry skin after using this sunscreen but it could be due to unrelated factors. Overall this is an amazing reef safe sunscreen and I highly recommend it.
- Mostly natural and the chemicals used are truly reef safe
- Cruelty-free, does not contain parabens, and is biodegradable
- Good water resistance and designed to be used with water activities
- Thick or “greasy” feeling after applying
- May dry out skin
- Expensive ~$3.53 per ounce
3. Badger All Natural Sunscreen SPF 30+
This next sunscreen is created by Badger, a small yet very popular family run company that produces a variety of all-natural products. Badger has a very good reputation and is known for consistently producing high-quality products. The Badger All Natural Sunscreen lives up to the hype of the brand and has secured a position at #3 on this list.
Adhering to their reputation as an all natural brand, Badger has created a reef safe sunscreen that contains less than 10 ingredients. All of these ingredients are household names and the majority of them are also organic. This is the most natural yet effective reef safe sunscreen that you will find on the market.
Due to the formula of this sunscreen, it may “separate” in the container and require kneading. This wasn’t the case when I tried it for the first time, but it is a minor annoyance that you should be aware of.
Applying this sunscreen for the first time was difficult due to its very thick consistency and zinc oxide based formula. This is a common problem among zinc oxide based sunscreens, but is definitely worth the trouble if you truly care about the reefs. After rubbing this product into my skin I noticed a visible white residue that is similar to the amount left behind by the Beauty by Earth Mineral Sunscreen and significantly more than the Burnout Ocean Test Physical SPF 30+ Sunscreen.
In addition to the visible white residue, the Badger All Natural Sunscreen felt very sticky on my skin. The water resistance of this sunscreen is extremely good. I went snorkeling for roughly 40 minutes, which is at the low end of their water resistance claim, and upon drying off it seemed like I hadn’t lost any sunscreen at all. Obviously a small amount had to come off, but I could still see and feel that it was on my skin.
I was kind of shocked at first, but once I was done snorkeling it turned out that the great water resistance could actually be seen as a negative. This sunscreen was very hard to remove from my skin, it took several minutes of hot water and soap to get most of it off.
I recommend this sunscreen to the true “naturalist” and to those whom won’t mind the difficulty of removing this sunscreen from your skin. This is one of the most expensive sunscreens that I’ve reviewed which is most likely due to the natural and organic ingredients used. This sunscreen is a solid choice, and it is 100% reef safe.
- Simple and mostly organic ingredients (contains less than 10 ingredients)
- Rated at 40+ minutes of water resistance
- Separation may occur in container
- Thick and difficult to spread
- The most expensive on the list ~$4.84 per ounce
Two additional sunscreens that almost made the list were the Raw Elements Eco Form Sunscreen SPF 30+ (#4), and the Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen Sensitive SPF 30+ (#5).
The Raw Elements Eco Form Sunscreen SPF 30+ is a great product, but costs nearly ~$5.38 per ounce. I couldn’t justify the cost when the other sunscreens had similar performance at a much lower price.
- Water resistant for up to 80 minutes
- Biodegradable, hypoallergenic, and contains no parabens
- Very natural ingredient list and non-GMO certified
- Strange smell
- Thick and difficult to apply
- The most expensive on the list~$5.38 per ounce
The Blue Lizard Australian Sunscreen Sensitive SPF 30+ is also a good product, but it has one major flaw. This sunscreen is not designed for water resistance and can wash off quite easily while diving or snorkeling. Due to this flaw, I couldn’t justify it as being in the top three. Something I liked about this sunscreen was that it has one of the best consistencies, and is very easy to apply.
- Easy to apply and soaks into skin easily
- Designed for sensitive skin
- Great UV protection
- May leave behind white residue
- Not designed for water activities and washes off easily
- Reasonably priced ~$3.27 per ounce
If you truly care about protecting the world’s coral reefs and are an avid snorkeler or diver I highly suggest you purchase one of the sunscreens on this list. There are many dishonest brands selling “reef safe sunscreen” that aren’t actually reef safe. Not only will using this type of sunscreen damage reefs, it may also be confiscated when you enter a marine park or go on tours to visit reef sites.
While the sunscreens on this list each have their own drawbacks compared to traditional sunscreen, they are definitely worth the minor inconvenience to protect coral reefs. Please make an informed decision, perform research of your own, and make sure that healthy coral reefs are around to show our kids and their grandkids.
If you would like me to review any other reef safe sunscreens, drop me a comment below!