Wear sunscreen whenever you spend time outdoors—even on cloudy days. But deciding which sunscreen to use may require some research. In addition to FDA-regulated properties like broad-spectrum (protects against UVA and UVB rays), water resistance (up to 40 or 80 minutes), and an SPF rating (at least SPF 30).
What does “Reef Safe” sunscreen protect?
The recent emphasis on “reef-safe” sunscreens is due to the destruction of coral reefs (so-called marine rainforests), which are made of limestone deposited by coral polyps over thousands of years. Changes in environmental conditions such as temperature, light or nutrients can stress coral reefs, causing them to expel colorful algae and turn white: If the stress persists, it can kill the coral and damage the ecosystems that depend on it.
Coral reefs make up less than 0.15% of the ocean, yet they are home to more than 25% of all marine species—including thousands of species of fish and plants. Corals are in a global crisis, due in part to natural causes, combined with increased ocean acidification due to rising ocean temperatures and climate change. These coral structures are prized because they grow very slowly – the rate of growth varies widely between 0.3 cm/year and 10 cm/year – and they protect the coastline from storms and erosion. Additionally, coral reefs add hundreds of millions of dollars to local economies around the world through fishing, diving and snorkeling.
What ingredients in sunscreen are bad for coral reefs?
Not sure, a recent in-depth study by a National Academy of Sciences (NAA) committee analyzed sunscreen active ingredients in a 400-page report that analyzed all available aquatic toxicity data for chemical and mineral filters on the US market.
Their main finding: There are data gaps in determining which active substances, if any, pose real risks to the marine environment. As a result, the committee wants the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the federal regulatory agency that funds NAA’s work, to impose sanctions on all currently marketed UV filters, including chemical (UV absorbing) and mineral//physical (UV blocking) actives, and any Available new active substances.
How do I know my SPF is reef safe?
There is currently no definitive way to know which sunscreen products are better than others for the health of coral reefs and aquatic life. Carys Mitchelmore, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science and the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, said the current availability of toxicity data that can be used to conduct environmental risk studies varies from “limited to non-existent.”
So is it really important to buy “reef safe” sunscreen?
Experts agree that the science of understanding the damage caused by sunscreen or any other chemical is young.
Various descriptors like ‘reef safe’ don’t have a clear official definition, or, frankly, no clear meaning. Currently terms like ‘reef safe’ are used more for marketing than to actually inform that products have been proven safer for coral reefs. In fact, earlier this year, the Northern District of California filed a class-action lawsuit against Australian sunscreen brand Bondi Sands, alleging it used false “coral reef-friendly” advertising. While the brand’s formula doesn’t contain oxybenzone or octinoic acid, it does contain other FDA-approved chemical sun filters, namely avobenzone, homosalate, octanosalicylate, and octenoic acid. The class action accuses Bondi Sands of indiscriminate use of chemical sunscreens, saying they could harm coral reefs and marine life.
However, whether based on science or not, many manufacturers have quietly phased out two chemical sunscreen actives (oxybenzone and octinoxate) banned in Hawaii from their sunscreen formulations. While this may alleviate the confusion consumers face when making purchasing decisions or packing for a trip to Hawaii, it hasn’t slowed down the marketing frenzy for “reef-safe sunscreen,” nor the controversy surrounding it.
With that said, here’s a list of the sunscreens that came out on top in our most recent consumer tests. We may charge a commission to purchase products through our links, but rest assured that you do not need to pay the commission.
BEST OVERALL MINERAL “REEF-SAFE” SUNSCREEN
COLORESCIENCE Sunforgettable Total Protection SPF 50 Body Shield
Total Protection Body Shield SPF 50
Designed with EnviroScreen Technology to provide invisible, 100% mineral protection from environmental aggressors such as UVA/UVB, pollution, blue light, and infrared radiation.
POWERFUL PROTECTION, IN A HYDRATING, ANTIOXIDANT-RICH FORMULA.
Carefully-selected specialty ingredients nourish skin and protect against harmful aggressors. This 100% mineral protection is free of chemical active ingredients, oil free, and is suitable for all skin types.
NO WHITE CAST.
Body Shield SPF 50 was formulated with proprietary EnviroScreen Technology using patented zinc oxide. In addition, iron oxides result in a universal shade, leaving no white cast for all skin tones.
- Ideal for daily use.
- Rich shea butter esters and a soothing chamomile extract for soft, conditioned skin
- Broad Spectrum SPF 50/PA +++
- water/sweat resistance (80 minutes)
BEST VALUE MINERAL “REEF-SAFE” SUNSCREEN
HAWAIIAN TROPIC Mineral Sun Milk Body Lotion SPF 50
Self nourishing milk formula, enriched with Hawaiian inspired botanicals coconut and kukui nut, provides lightweight yet long lasting moisturization.
Infused with coconut oil, Hawaiian Tropic was lauded for its smooth application, transfer resistance and “deliciously tropical” scent.
BEST MINERAL “REEF-SAFE” FACE SUNSCREEN
SUN BUM Mineral SPF 30 Tinted Sunscreen Face Lotion
Some of us like to go as au naturel as possible, so we’re really proud to introduce our new zinc-based Mineral collection for your lounging and earth loving pleasure. Lightweight, silky, SPF 30 Mineral Tinted Sunscreen Face Lotion glides on like butter and provides a chemical free sunscreen and primer with a matte finish.