Please note: This post contains affiliate links.
Given my fair skin and love for the ocean, finding reef safe sunscreen that will protect me from the sun’s damaging rays and not harm the environment is important to me. Until recently, I didn’t realize how chemical sunscreens negatively impact our rivers and oceans. I strive to always learn more and modify my behavior in an effort to ensure the fascinating underwater world and its unique inhabitants exist for future generations.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are reef safe sunscreen
The best reef safe sunscreens to use are those that include zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. These mineral based ingredients combat both skin damage and premature aging.
Some great reef safe sunscreen options are:
These rate as top choices in many articles, including those published by Hawaii.com, Travel & Leisure, and Wirecutter.
- Adults Face and Body: Thinksport 50+ (20% non nano zinc oxide). Offers broad spectrum UVA and UVB coverage. This sunscreen is rated 2 by EWG, which means the ingredients have a low hazard rating and fair or better data availability exists. Water resistant for 80 minutes.
- Kids Face and Body: Thinksport Kid’s 50+ (20% non nano zinc oxide). Offers broad spectrum UVA and UVB coverage. This is also rated 2 by EWG, which means the ingredients have a low hazard rating and fair or better data availability exists. Water resistant for 80 minutes. It has a faint coconut scent.
- Lips: Raw Elements Lip Rescue 30+ (23% non nano zinc oxide). This is also rated 1 by EWG.
- Face & Lips: Badger All Season Face Stick SPF 35 (22.5% non nano zinc oxide). Blocks UVA and UVA rays. Water resistant for 80 minutes and biodegradable. Rated 1 by EWG.
Oxybenzone and octinoxate kill coral
Did you know that oxybenzone and octinoxate kill coral? Since these are two of the most common ingredients in mainstream sunscreens, I was shocked to learn this.
Oxybenzone can lead to coral bleaching at lower temperatures.
Not only do chemical based sunscreens harm the environment, they are also more likely to cause skin irritations and potentially allergic reactions.
Chemical based sunscreen ingredients to avoid include:
- Ethylhexl Methoxycinnamate
- Preservatives (often found in Inactive Ingredients section):
- Methyl paraben
- Butyl paraben
- Phenoxyethanol (this was previously used as a fish anesthetic!)
They are so harmful that Hawaii recently passed a bill to prohibit selling sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate, which goes into effect Jan 1, 2021. Hopefully, other places follow suit and adopt this practice to protect their underwater wonders and wildlife by mandating reef safe sunscreen.
Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has experienced catastrophic bleaching
Sadly, coral reef bleaching has impacted 93% of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. While the rise in ocean temperatures due to global warming is the primary culprit, toxic sunscreen also contributes to the phenomenon.
The Great Barrier Reef’s kaleidoscopic colors inspired me to pursue my SCUBA diving certification after indulging in discovery dives there. Since getting certified, I’ve indulged in 400+ dives throughout the world, marveling at the breathtaking underwater beauty. The thought that one of the seven natural wonders of the world may cease to exist in our lifetimes is heartbreaking.
Palau’s Jellyfish Lake population has dropped dramatically
Palau is another place where non reef safe sunscreen has had a negative impact. The famous stingless jellyfish lake population has dropped from 8 million to 600,000 as of March 2017. This drastic decline is due to a combination of global warming, severe drought, non reef safe sunscreen, and people handling/kicking them. The lake was closed from March 2017 to January 2019 to allow the jellyfish population to recover and rebound. Now that it’s re-opened, protect these fragile jellyfish by wearing only reef-safe sunscreen and not using fins in the lake.
Chemical sunscreen impacts marine mammals too
When we swam with humpback whales in Tonga, we also used reef safe sunscreen. The Tongan whale population has recovered from the brink of extinction to now have 2,500 whales in the area. We wanted to ensure that the time we spent admiring them did not harm them as a result of toxic sunscreens.
Other ways to protect yourself:
- Make sure to apply sunscreen 20 minutes before sun exposure. And, reapply every 80 minutes.
- Limit your time in sun from 10 AM – 2 PM.
- Wear a wide-brimmed hat. Wallaroo is my favorite brand since they offer numerous colors and designs. Since they scrunch easily, I can pack them in my day bag wherever I go. Make sure to protect your neck and ears.
- Use a 50 UPF sunscreen top or rash guard, allowing you to use less sunscreen. Coolibar, Athleta, Lululemon, and Lavacore all offer tops I like.
- Opt for polarized sunglasses. Maui Jim & Costa are two of my favorites.
- Wear Coolibar gloves to protect your hands while kayaking, stand up paddle boarding, canoeing, etc.
- Invest in a UV buff for water activities – dunk it in ice water to cool you down and pull it up to protect your face during boating/kayaking activities.