Why You Should Care About Coral Reef Safe Sunscreen

Underwater coral reef, St. John US Virgin Islands

When’s the last time you thought about coral reef safe sunscreen? Or at least thought about what was in your sunscreen?

There’s no doubt that wearing sunscreen is extremely important for the health of your skin. But did you know that your current sunscreen might be harming the health of coral reefs?

In a nutshell, chemicals in sunscreen contribute to the effects of coral bleaching and disease when it washes off into the ocean. The chemicals are called oxybenzone and octinoxate, and they’re found in many popular sunscreen brands (about 3500 to be exact!), including Coppertone, Neutrogena, Aveeno, Banana Boat, and Tropicana.

On May 1, 2018, Hawaii made waves (haha, get it?) when they became the first state to officially ban the distribution of sunscreens containing reef harming chemicals. But until the rest of the world follows suit, its up to us – as conscious consumers – to protect coral reefs by wearing sunscreen that’s safe for coral reefs.

But first…

Why should you care about coral reefs?

Because they’re beautiful (of course)! And also really important.

Did you know that coral reef’s are among the most biodiverse and biologically productive ecosystems in the world? So productive, in fact, that they’re actually called “rainforests of the sea”.

Coral reefs provide complex and specialized habitats for millions of marine species. While they account for less than 1 percent of the earth’s surface, about 25 percent of all of the ocean’s fish depend on them for food, shelter, and as places to reproduce and rear their young.

A huge number of humans rely on them too. Over half a billion people depend on coral reefs for food, jobs, and coastline protection. Every year, coral reefs generate about $400 billion dollars in fishing and tourism. The ocean fishing industry alone employs 38 million people worldwide; while the livelihoods of some island nations depend almost entirely on their local reefs.

What would happen if coral reefs were to disappear? It would mean the collapse of the fishing industry, loss of tourism that entire nations depend on, disruption to the food chain and a crushing loss in biodiversity of the oceans. Just to name a few things.

So, what exactly is a coral reef?

Coral reefs are built by – you guessed it – corals.

Corals are actually colonies of tiny, soft-bodied animals, called polyps. A coral begins when a polyp attaches itself to the sea floor, then divides into thousands of clones.

Corals can be soft or hard, depending on their skeletal structure. Soft corals resemble plants or trees, and are supported by a rigid internal core. Hard corals, on the other hand, are often mistaken for rocks because they produce a stony skeleton made of calcium carbonate. Hard corals are referred to as “reef-builders” because their stony skeletons provide the foundation of the coral reef ecosystem.

Coral reefs all over the world are in trouble

Growing up in upstate New York, I learned to scuba dive in the freezing cold waters of the Great Lakes. While the Great Lakes had a lot to offer, I couldn’t wait to dive in the ocean. Finally, I got the chance when I accepted a graduate position studying the reproduction and growth rates of Caribbean corals.

I was so excited to dive on the reef. I expected a rainbow of sea life – colorful corals, schools of fish, and maybe even some sharks. You know, the same type of thing you see on Nat Geo and Finding Nemo. Well, you can imagine my disappointment when I dropped down to see quite the opposite. There was no rainbow. Instead, there were some sad looking corals scattered about a bunch of sand and rubble. The only fish were a pair of French angels curiously hovering nearby.

Several years and 300 dives later, I’ve seen coral reefs from the Pacific to the Caribbean. And I can assure you that the kaleidoscope of colors you see in movies is very much the exception to the rule. But it wasn’t always like that. The skeletons of many coral reefs were once vibrant, thriving ecosystems. They were all once that vibrant colorful underwater world we always imagine them to be.

So, what the heck happened to them?

A lot of things. Mostly the result of human activity, such as sedimentation, unsustainable fishing, pollution, irresponsible tourism, and climate change. All of which either kill the coral directly, or exacerbate the effects of diseases, storms, and predation.


How does sunscreen harm coral reefs?

Because harmful chemicals in sunscreen – such as oxybenzone and octinoxate –  pollute the water when they wash off your skin.

When corals absorb these chemicals, they react the same way they do when the water gets too warm or if they catch a disease: they lose their symbiotic relationship with the algae living in their cells. An event referred to as coral bleaching.

While coral bleaching doesn’t kill the coral directly, severe or long term bleaching can cause coral to die from starvation or disease. Widespread death of corals can have disastrous effects on the marine ecosystem. And approximately three-quarters of the world’s coral reefs are already at risk.

At this point, you might be thinking, “I’m only one person. Does my sunscreen really matter?“.

But what if everyone thought that?

In 2015, the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory surveyed a popular beach on St. John in the US Virgin Islands. They found that 2,000 to 5,000 people use the beach every single day. Resulting in over 6,000 pounds of sunscreen washing off onto the reef every year.

And its not just St. John. Many tropical destinations see millions of tourists each year, leaving coral reefs all over the world highly susceptible to sunscreen-induced coral bleaching.

How you can help coral reefs by using reef safe sunscreen

.There’s still a lot of work and research to be done in order to save fragile coral reefs. But one of the ways we can help is by making the individual choice to purchase (and travel with!) coral reef safe sunscreen.

When shopping for coral reef safe sunscreen, make sure you look for:

  • NO oxybenzone and octinoxate! These are the two chemicals responsible for harming coral reefs by causing coral bleaching. When you’re shopping for coral reef safe sunscreen, check the ingredients and make sure these two chemicals are NOT on the list. Also avoid products containing petroleum (mineral oil), homosalata, octisalate, titanium dioxide, and octocrylene (also linked to brain damage in reef fish.)
  • YES to mineral-based sunscreen containing zinc oxide. Sunscreens made with zinc oxide are mineral-based sunscreens and are coral reef safe. Particles in mineral-based sunscreen sit on the skin and block harmful UV rays.
  • Look for “non-nano” ingredients. Corals can ingest particles smaller than 100 nanometers. Make sure your mineral-based sunscreen indicates that the ingredients are non-nano, meaning that they’re bigger than 100 nanometers.
  • All-natural, coral-reef safe label. Check for coral reef safe labels, but always double check the ingredients just to be sure. Although sunscreen claims are required to be “truthful and not misleading”, the term “reef safe” doesn’t have a clear/widely agreed upon definition. Therefore, “reef safe” labels aren’t strictly regulated, and manufacturer’s aren’t required to demonstrate that their products are actually safe for marine life. So, to be safe, always opt for sunscreens with chemical-free, all-natural formulas (like the ones I listed below!).

My Top List for Coral Reef Safe, Eco-friendly Sunscreen Brands in 2019

As someone who has studied and worked in the ocean, protecting coral reefs is a topic that’s close to my heart. So, before my last trip to the South Pacific, I made it my mission to track down the best coral reef safe sunscreen brands.

These are my favorite coral reef safe, eco-friendly sunscreen brands for 2019. All of these brands are cruelty-free and use recyclable/sustainable packaging.

If you’re heading out on a tropical vacation, or just want to invest in products that are good for your body (and the planet!), give these coral reef safe sunscreen brands a try.


All Good Sunscreen ButterAll Good Tinted Sunscreen Butter

SPF Rating: 50+

Price: $10.99 (1 oz)

Active ingredient: 25% Non-Nano Zinc Oxide

What to love: All Good Sunscreen Butter is an excellent coral-reef safe product to consider for your next tropical adventure. Its a great choice for everything from watersports to backcountry hiking.

All Good Sunscreen offers vegan, gluten-free, reef-friendly, broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection. Top rated by EWG, this sunscreen contains calendula and coconut oil to moisturize and repair damaged skin.

All Good also makes a huge variety of deodorants, lotions, and healing products. I brought All Good sunscreen, lip balm, and herbal freeze spray along with me to the South Pacific and can safely say I’ll be packing them for all of my future adventures.

Check out all of their products HERE.


Raw Elements

Raw Elements Reef Safe Sunscreen - Face and BodySPF Rating: 30

Price: $18.99 (3 oz)

Active ingredient: Non Nano Zinc Oxide (23%)

What to love: Created for eco-conscious adventurers, Raw Elements Sunscreen is reef-safe, cruelty-free, and provides water-resistant broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB. This sunscreen is great for anyone with sensitive skin or allergies because its soy, gluten, and nut-free. The whole product is environmentally friendly and a 1% for the planet member. Options for packaging include plastic free tins or biodegradable and recyclable tubes.


Mama Kuleana

Mama Kuleana Oxybenzone Free SunscreenSPF Rating: 30

Price: $21.00 (2 oz)

Active ingredient: Non-nano zinc powder

What to love: Mama Kuleana Sunscreen is made in small batches in the foothills of West Maui. Their formula is water-resistant, all natural and chemical free. Containers are plastic free and fully biodegradable.


Little Urchin Natural Sunscreen

Little Urchin All Natural SunscreenSPF Rating: 30

Price: $24.95 (100g)

Active ingredient: Zinc oxide

What to love: Created by a father who didn’t want his young daughter ‘caked in chemical-smelling sunscreen’. Their story and formula is inspired by sea urchins, who create their own natural sunscreen to protect their young. Little Urchin Sunscreen is organic, all natural, cruelty free, and a 1% for the planet member.



Surf Dirt Eco Friendly SunscreenSPF Rating: 30

Price: $20.00 (2 oz)

Active ingredient: Non Nano Zinc Oxide

What to love: Created in Hawaii. SurfDurt is for extreme adventurers, with the health of the ocean in mind. All natural, water-resistant formula made with Solar Powered Manufacturing. No added chemicals and it smells like cookies! Packaged in a reusable bamboo container.


Manda Organic Sun PasteMANDA Organic, Reef Safe Sunscreen Sun Paste

SPF Rating: 50

Price: $28.00 (4 oz)

Active ingredient: Non-nano zinc oxide (20%), Thanaka

What to love: MANDA Organic Sun Paste provides wind, water, and sweat protection for outdoor lovers. MANDA supplements their active ingredients using Thanaka in order to minimize their environmental footprint. Thanaka is a sustainable and regenerative natural sun protectant, sourced from a tree native to Myanmar.

Formulated using all natural, organic, cruelty free, and non-toxic, food-grade ingredients.

Sea & Summit Reef Safe, Plant Based Sunscreen

Sea & Summit All Natural SunscreenSPF Rating: 30

Price: $16.00 (4.4oz)

Active ingredient: Non-nano zinc oxide

What to love: Sea & Summit is a grassroots company, with the goal of bringing awareness and tangible change to the environmental crisis. Their non-greasy formula is all natural, plant based, cruelty free, and free of chemicals. The bottle is made from 100% recycled milk cartons.


Raw Love All-Natural Mineral Sunscreen

Raw Love - Reef Safe Sunscreen Made in Hawaii
SPF Rating: 35

Price: $16.99 (2oz)

Active ingredient: Zinc oxide

What to love: Created by a dive master in Hawaii, for people who love the water (and tattoos!). The ingredients are 100% all natural plant based and sourced using organic farming methods. This sunscreen is super concentrated, so a little goes a long way. Packaging is plastic free!


Mad Hippie Facial SPF

Mad Hippie Reef Safe Sunscreen SPF Rating: 30

Price: $24.99 (2 oz)

Active ingredient: Zinc oxide

What to love: Mad Hippie is a dedicated to natural skin care and finding ways to reduce their dependence on non-renewable resources. This natural facial sunscreen combines zinc oxide with all natural antioxidant-rich oils and vitamins to moisturize and protect your skin. Packaging is made from bioresin sugarcane plastic sourced from environmentally friendly farms and is fully recyclable. 1% donated to conservation.


Kokua Reef Safe Sunscreen

Kokua Hawaiian Sunscreen - Ocean Safe, Reef FriendlySPF Rating: 50

Price: $29.95 (3 oz)

Active ingredient: 25% Non-nano Zinc Oxide

What to love: Created in Hawaii using an all natural blend of antioxidants and Hawaii-sourced botanicals. Designed rub in clear and provide superior water resistance without feeling heavy or greasy. Formula uses highest percentage of non-nano zinc oxide available. Moisturizing and light enough for every day use.

Kokua supports local Hawaiian business, agriculture, and non-profits. Packaging is BPA free and 100% recyclable.


Thinksport Safe Sunscreen

ThinkSport Reef Safe SunscreenSPF Rating: 50

Price: $12.99 (3 oz)

Active ingredient:

What to love: Top-rated by EWG and developed for beach and outdoor sports. The formula is safe for children, water-resistant, and free of all harmful chemicals. They have achieved the highest level of biodegradability testing. Cruelty free.

Badger Unscented, Natural Mineral Sunscreen

Badger All Natural Sunscreen for Sensitive SkinSPF Rating: 30

Price: $15.99 (2.9 oz)

Active ingredient: Non-Nano, Uncoated Zinc Oxide 18.75%

What to love: This sunscreen is unscented and made with only 5 ingredients, making it great for sensitive skin. Certified cruelty free, gluten-free, biodegradable, and reef friendly.


Hopefully you’ve found this post informative and helpful in your journey to switching to coral reef safe sunscreen!

As always, if I missed anything, if you have any questions, or if you liked this post, feel free to drop a comment below. I love to hear from you!

Happy travels!

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One Comment

  1. Gina S August 7, 2020 at 5:52 pm - Reply

    I recently read that zinc oxide has been found to cause bleaching in the reefs due to harming the Zooxanthella. I’m so disappointed by this potential news since it sounds like titanium dioxide is the best for humans (laut EWG) so do you recommend any good titanium dioxide sunscreens that could be used specifically for swimming and sport?

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