Swimming somewhere tropical? You'll need a reef-safe sunscreen. Statistics show that many sunscreens contain chemicals that can harm marine ecosystems, which include precious coral reefs. Luckily, rising awareness has given birth to reef-safe and reef-friendly sunscreens that won't hurt a thing!
We've done a lot of research and pored through reviews to pick the 10 best reef-safe sunscreens for reefs and our skin. Blue Lizard's Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen took first place on our list as it can effectively shield your skin from harmful UV rays while protecting coral reefs. And after you've looked at our list, our buying guide will provide you with useful information on what needs to be considered when choosing non-toxic sunscreens with research backed by a dermatologist.
Dr. Levy is a board certified dermatologist practicing in NYC and Westport, Connecticut. She has expertise in treating inflammatory skin conditions like acne, rosacea, eczema, and psoriasis. She has an interest in skincare and takes a personalized approach to all of her patients.
mybest US' editing team consists of experienced members who have backgrounds in writing, editing, translation, and more. We are dedicated to researching what makes a product or service the best to users in the US in order to create top-quality articles. From skincare, to kitchen appliances, and to DIY supplies, our mission is to find the best ones for you.
The expert oversees the Buying Guide only, and does not determine the products and services featured.
Table of Contents
Reading ingredient labels is important, but you also need to consider a sunscreen's texture, formula, and SPF! In this buying guide, we will give you some tips and tricks to help you choose the right reef-safe sunscreen for yourself.
“Reef-safe” and “Reef-friendly” aren’t terms that are regulated by the FDA, which means any brand can put these words on labels to attract consumers. These labels usually refer to sunscreens that are only free from oxybenzone and octinoxate, but they might contain other possibly harmful ingredients. So, it’s better to check the ingredient list yourself!
When choosing a reef-safe sunscreen, make sure it doesn't contain active ingredients such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, 3-benzylidene camphor, and 4-methyl benzylidene camphor. These ingredients are indeed effective in protecting your skin from UV rays, but they can be harmful to marine life and reefs and cause coral bleaching.
Specifically, oxybenzone is commonly found in about 70 percent of sunscreens sold in the U.S, and eight percent are made with oxtinoxate. These chemicals can damage coral DNA, reduce its lifespan, and decrease its reproduction.
Meanwhile, 3-benzylidene camphor and 4-methyl benzylidene camphor are the other two toxic chemicals that cause coral bleaching. So check the ingredient list, and make sure your sunscreen doesn't contain any of those ingredients!
The chemical blockers are the ones to stay away from to avoid damaging reefs. Look for a sunscreen that is a mineral blocker that has zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
These mineral blockers are great UV blockers and can filter out both UVA and UVB rays, and are great to use on sensitive skin, eczema-prone skin, and babies and toddlers.
There are also other potentially harmful chemicals in sunscreens that you need to be aware of because they can harm marine organisms. These chemicals are ones such as triclosan, plastic microbeads, and PABA.
They don't have a negative impact only on reefs, but also on the human body! PABA might trigger allergic reactions such as stinging and burning, for instance.
Preservatives are generally not damaging to reefs. However, some preservatives can trigger an allergic reaction or dermatitis, which can look like a red, scaly, itchy, and burning rash.
Your dermatologist can patch test you to see what specific ingredient you are allergic to. Avoiding these ingredients in the future will prevent rash.
There are two types of UV rays that can damage skin: UVA rays and UVB rays. UVA rays cause skin problems like dark spots, wrinkles, and other signs of aging while UVB rays can cause sunburn. Sunscreens that offer broad-spectrum protection can help you avoid both.
But when we buy sunscreens, we usually look at the SPF rating. SPF30 can block 97 percent of UV rays while SPF50 can block 98 percent of UV rays, which is only a one percent difference. Most people choose a sunscreen with a higher SPF number because they want more sun protection.
However, more protection can mean more chemicals. If you have sensitive skin, the high amount of chemicals might cause skin irritation. The best way to protect our skin from sunlight and save reefs is to choose a lower number SPF (around SPF30) but apply it at least 30 minutes before activity and reapply it every two hours.
If you have fair skin or have skin conditions that are worsened by the sun, like rosacea, lupus, or melasma, you should choose a higher daily SPF, ideally 45-70.
Also, make sure you are using a broad-spectrum sunscreen to block out UVA and UVB rays which can both make these conditions worse. Lastly, do not forget to reapply your sunscreen throughout the day!
Many island tourist attractions ban chemical sunscreens that are harmful to reefs. These islands include Key West, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Palau, Bonaire, and islands in Mexico (Cancun, Tulum, Cabo, and so on). Different laws might ban different things, so make sure your sunscreen is permitted under the law of your destination.
Palau was the first nation to implement this law by prohibiting 10 chemical ingredients, which took effect from January 1, 2020. Anyone who violates the law by selling these prohibited sunscreens could be fined up to $1,000!
In addition, Hawaii and Key West in Florida are the first two places in the U.S. that have banned both the use and sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate as of January 1, 2021.
Make sure you are still taking effective sun precautions when traveling to these destinations, and bring a mineral sunscreen to protect your skin.
Another effective way to get sun protection is to use UV protective clothing. This will allow you to get sun protection on areas that may be difficult to apply sunscreen.
Mineral sunscreens are also known as physical sunscreens. When we talk about mineral sunscreens, we usually refer to ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. However, make sure that those ingredients are "non-nano", meaning their particles are larger than 100 nanometers in size.
Due to their large size, non-nano mineral ingredients are less likely to be ingested by marine life. As a result, they are safe for reefs and won't lead to coral bleaching.
On top of that, they are less likely to be absorbed into the skin. So it’s popular to use this type for babies and people with sensitive skin, too!
The major complaint with mineral sunscreens is the white cast they leave on the skin. They can be difficult to rub and are quite thick. However, they are really effective at blocking UV rays and protecting from the sun.
Nano mineral sunscreens are still physical blockers but made with smaller particles. They are easier to rub in and especially great for daily use on the face under makeup. Nano mineral sunscreens are also reef-safe.
Biodegradable sunscreens are friendly to the environment since they can naturally break down quickly in the environment. However, keep in mind that not all biodegradable sunscreens are safe for coral reefs.
Sunscreen ingredients like PABA, octinoxate, and oxybenzone are biodegradable. But as mentioned in the previous section, they are not reef-friendly. So don't assume a biodegradable sunscreen as reef-friendly. Instead, read through the ingredient list to make sure it's truly reef-safe.
If you will be snorkeling or diving for hours, a water-resistant formula is what you want to choose. Most work between 40-80 minutes using oils, waxes, or silicone ingredients like dimethicone, and after that, the level of sun protection will be decreased.
The less you apply your sunscreen, the better it is to reefs and ecosystems. A water-resistant formula isn’t easily washed off by water, so it will bring fewer chemicals or sunscreen ingredients into the ocean.
When you spray sunscreen, it usually spreads out on the sand rather than sticking to your skin. As a result, the tides will bring these chemicals to the ocean.
Also, there's a chance that you accidentally breathe in the aerosolized particles of the spray. These particles tend to remain in the lung and cause respiratory issues like asthma.
To reduce your exposure to these particles and to prevent them from getting into the ocean, we suggest you buy cream, gel, or lotion sunscreens. Plus, they’re lightweight and easy to apply by rubbing into your skin.
I generally recommend avoiding spray sunscreens because the amount of sunscreen that actually gets applied on the body is less than with other forms of sunscreens due to wind, which can give a false sense of protection.
Also, in 2021, a chemical that can cause cancer called benzene was found in many spray sunscreens. While many sunscreens were recalled, be sure you are not using any sunscreens that were recalled this past year.
Click to purchase
Australian Sunscreen Sensitive
Best Overall Choice for Its Smart Bottle Technology
Best Reef-Safe Sunscreen With a Matte Finish for Oily Skin
All Good Makes Everything Better
Active Natural Mineral Sunscreen Cream
Best for Soothing Inflammation Due to Sunburn
Clear Zinc Sunscreen
Best Gentle Sunscreen for Babies and Kids
SPF 50+ Sunscreen
Best Biodegradable Sunscreen for Water Sports
20% Zinc Oxide Mineral Sunscreen
Best Tinted Sunscreen That's Also Reef-Safe
Kokua Sun Care
Hawaiian Natural Zinc Sunscreen
Best Zinc Oxide Sunscreen That Doesn't Leave Behind White Residue
Green Tea Hawaiian Sunscreen
Best Soothing Formula for Relieving Inflammation and Sunburn
Mineral Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion
Best for Softening and Smoothening the Skin
Suncream SPF 30+
Best for Naturally Preventing Sun Damage
This sunscreen is mineral-based and formulated without oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals that directly damage reefs. It's also free from fragrance and is suitable for those with fragrance sensitivity. Another unique point is the smart bottle technology, which will turn blue when there are strong UV rays. So you know it's time to apply sunscreen.
Some people note that this sunscreen leaves behind a white cast. However, many others confirm that it blocks UV rays well and prevents them from getting sunburn. Many reviewers also love that it has a lightweight consistency and blends smoothly on the skin with no greasy feel.
This mineral sunscreen features an antioxidant-rich formula that contains Kakadu plum, eucalyptus, and red algae. It's also water-resistant and contains none of the chemical ingredients that harm reefs. What's more, it has a powder-like feel that will give you a matte finish, so it suits people with oily skin.
Some buyers claim that the texture is a tad too dry for dry skin. A few others further note that it leaves a little bit of a white cast on the skin. Still, the majority say it has a silky texture that glides on smoothly. They are also pleased with the mild scent and long-lasting protection provided by this sunscreen.
This reef-safe sunscreen is formulated with 16 percent non-nano zinc oxide and includes many moisturizing ingredients like shea butter and olive fruit oil. The formula is infused with soothing and antioxidant-rich ingredients like aloe vera, green tea extract, and calendula flower to calm inflammation triggered due to sunburn.
It's said that this sunscreen doesn't provide enough sun protection for fair skin that gets burned easily. However, most reviewers say it absorbs nicely into the skin and doesn't make it look chalky. It's moisturizing and doesn't irritate the skin as well, buyers mention.
This mineral sunscreen contains organic ingredients and 100 percent non-nano zinc oxide. It is a broad-spectrum formula with water resistance, so it can block all the UV rays during your physical activity. Its gentle formula works for all ages and all skin types.
A few reviewers claim that the mixture separates, so it requires a little shake before using. Even so, many reviewers like that it's free from potentially harsh ingredients such as fragrance and doesn't cause more skin oil production. It's a good sunscreen for babies, kids, and of course the environment.
This is the first sunscreen that passed all requirements of Whole Foods Premium Care and received the highest score in biodegradability testing. It is also rated as "level one", the lowest level of hazard score from the Environmental Working Group, since 2010. It's also packed with nourishing ingredients, including sunflower oil, jojoba oil, and hyaluronic acid.
Some buyers say this sunscreen takes a while to absorb. But most people comment it's great for everyday use. There are also reports that this sunscreen is highly water-resistant and is suitable for sports and water activities. Many others love its non-shiny formula and further note that it doesn't irritate their skin.
This mineral-based sunscreen features a universal tint that flatters all skin tones. There are also many nourishing ingredients such as green tea extract, cranberry extract, pomegranate extract, and vitamin C to provide your skin with moisture and prevent premature aging.
Some buyers say this sunscreen takes a while to absorb. But, many with sensitive skin benefit from its fragrance-free formula. They further mention that this sunscreen makes their skin smooth without causing irritation. Another plus point is the matte finish that doesn't make the skin greasy and is suitable for oily skin.
This reef-safe sunscreen is made with non-nano zinc oxide and offers you broad-spectrum sun protection. It also includes antioxidant-rich ingredients such as coffee cherry extract, macadamia nut oil, kukui nut oil, noni juice, and spirulina to protect your skin against free radical damage.
Although some reviewers say it has a thick consistency and is a bit hard to apply, many others mention that it actually sinks in and doesn't leave behind any white residue. They also compliment the moisturizing, non-irritating formula and say it provides good UV protection.
This sunscreen is made without ingredients that are harmful to coral reefs such as oxybenzone or octinoxate. Enriched with ingredients like aloe vera, green tea, lavender, palm kernel oil, and ginkgo leaf extract, it can also protect your skin against sunburn, soothe itchiness, and relieve inflammation.
Some reviewers don't like the thick, greasy texture that doesn't absorb quickly. Meanwhile, it's said that this sunscreen suits acne and doesn't cause acne or leave a white residue. Many buyers love the natural scent and find it highly moisturizing as well. After using this sunscreen, reviewers are impressed with how soft their skin feels.
This broad-spectrum sunscreen can block both UVA and UVB rays. It's infused with moisturizers such as coconut oil and shea butter to leave your skin feel smooth and soft to the touch. This sunscreen is mineral-based and contains 20 percent zinc oxide.
Some reviewers find the texture feels greasy and doesn't absorb into the skin. But, most users say it's an effective sunscreen and can prevent sunburn. Those with sensitive skin also appreciate that it doesn't cause allergic reactions and has a light coconut scent.
This cream sunscreen is a reef-safe sunscreen that contains non-nano zinc oxide. It offers full protection from UVA and UVB rays, as well as 80 minutes of water resistance. Formulated with coconut oil, shea butter, and avocado oil, it can give your skin some extra moisture. There's also red raspberry seed oil to calm inflammation and prevent sun damage.
Some reviewers say this sunscreen is gritty when it comes out and is a bit hard to apply. Besides that, most people say that if they apply it as frequently as is recommended, it does a great job protecting them from sunburn. Many further mention that it goes on nicely and leaves the skin moisturized.
Using non-chemical sunscreens is one of the best ways to protect reefs, but there are other little things that everyone can do to save reefs, too!
The ideal way is to stop using sunscreens, cosmetics, and other personal care products when you go to the beach; however, the reality is that's impossible for most people. What we can do is to find a balance point between saving the environment and protecting our skin.
First, make sure you wear UV protective clothing like long sleeve swimsuits or wetsuits in order to use less sunscreen. In addition, some accessories like hats, beach shades, and umbrellas are also a good option to protect your skin from sunlight.
It's actually not hard to make your own sunscreen! You'll only need a few simple ingredients such as coconut oil and olive oil. Here is a recipe from Bumblebee Apothecary for a reef-safe sunscreen.
According to statistics, approximately eight to 13 million tons of plastic trash are found in the ocean every year. Plastics and other trash prevent sunlight and oxygen from reaching reefs, which make them unhealthy and can cause infectious diseases.
Some studies have found that reefs that are contaminated with tons of plastic have an 85 percent higher rate of disease than those that aren't contaminated with plastic waste! The countries that have the most plastic waste in the oceans are China, Indonesia, Thailand, the Philippines, and Vietnam.
Many people try to swim near a reef just to take a good selfie with them. Some people intend to touch the coral while others accidentally bump into them, but whatever the case, touching can kill reefs.
In addition, bringing coral home without a permit is illegal! They are actually protected under domestic and international laws.
It's challenging to find a sunscreen that is reef-friendly, and you may still have some questions after reading our buying guide. We will answer one of the most frequently asked questions in this section!
Active ingredients in physical sunscreens such as oxybenzone and octinoxate have been shown to be harmful to marine life. Particularly, those two ingredients can cause oxidative damage to the DNA of coral reefs and hinder their growth. They might even increase the rate of coral bleaching.
Mineral filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, when in the nano form, may be absorbed by coral reefs and cause coral bleaching as well. All of those active ingredients might also harm other sea creatures. So, to protect corals, it's important to use reef-safe sunscreen!
We get it - constantly reapplying sunscreen can be tedious. So when you want to take a break from slathering on the SPF, consider other ways of protecting yourself from UV rays!
No. 1: Blue Lizard｜Australian Sunscreen Sensitive
No. 2: Australian Gold｜Botanical Sunscreen
No. 3: All Good Makes Everything Better｜Active Natural Mineral Sunscreen Cream
No. 4: Babo Botanicals｜Clear Zinc Sunscreen
No. 5: Thinksport｜SPF 50+ Sunscreen
View Full Ranking
The descriptions of each product are referenced from content available on manufacturer, brand, and e-commerce sites.
Food and drinks
Kids and baby
Home, garden, and tools
Sports and fitness