Eco Tips, Product Reviews

Best Reef Safe Sunscreen

Reef Safe sunscreen time! I have been meaning to talk this for a very long time, scroll down to the bottom to get a list of some epic sunscreen brands you can get yourself! Or how to make your own!


Hawaii Setting the Bar

Hawaii has just passed a landmark decision, of banning all reef harming sunscreen island wide. The decision is currently awaiting the governors signature and would come into affect January 1st 2021. Currently, estimations are that 14,000 tons of suscreen is deposited in oceans annually. The greatest damage from these chemical products has been found in popular reef areas in Hawaii and the Caribbean. Studies were conducted by the non profict Haereticus Environmental Laboratory which surveyed several beaches, finding the statistics of Trunk Bay receiving 2,000 to 5,000 swimmers daily while Hanauma bay, a popular snorkeling destination in Oahu drawing 2,6000 swimmers a day. Calculating roughly the amount of sunscreen a person puts on and repplies, the amount washed off into the reefs could be up to 200kg per day!

Reef Safe Sunscreen

Raw Love Plastic Free Sunscreen – $24.99

Manda Organic Sun Paste SPF 50 – 28$


Raw Elements Face + Body SPF 30 – $15


Deter Mineral Sunscreen – 12$

Badger Sunscreen – $16

Joshua Tree Reef Safe Sunscreen – 19.99$

Elemental Sunscreen – $29.99


Reef Safe Sunscreen Kabana – $37.69

BurnOut Reef Safe Sunscreen – $14.50

Star Naturals Sunscreen Stick – $13

While Hawaii has held campaigns against harmful sunscreens already, with many tourism destinations recommending Reef Safe products instead, pushing such legislation into official documents is an incredible victory for the coral habitats. The past 20 years, in particular, have pushed many Reefs to the brink of catastrophe, accelerated by the extreme mass bleaching events induced by El Niño and local pollution through the booming tourism and development. Craig Downs, the executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory says “Everyone has come together to support this legislation, from local nurses and doctors to resorts and airlines, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of new sunscreen companies to supply reef-safer products.”


Craig Down’s PhD, involvement in investigating the effects of sunscreen in coral reefs was catalysed in 2005, when he received a call pleading him to find the cause of the degradation of the reef around the U.S Virgin Islands. While originally stumped, the locals quickly pointed the finger at the tourists. Sure enough, after a day of splashing in the water, there was apparently an oil like slick appearance on the surface of the water. The sunscreen residue.


So, back to the sunscreen issue, on top of the other ways scuba divers, swimmers, and snorkellers are hurting the reef, slathering it onto our bodies to try and protect us from UV rays, we need to find an alternative. A growing amount of Reef Safe Sunscreens have appeared on the market, and I wanted to explain what this meant.

How Sunscreen Damages Coral Reefs

After Craig Downs made the connection between the oily pools on the beaches in the U.S Virgin islands and sunscreen, he began investigating the relationships closer. He did studies under controlled conditions and indeed found explanations of what had been seen in the wild. Oxybenzone, which is a common ingredient in over 3,500 sunscreens worldwide, can damage coral DNA and lead to what Downs dubbed “Reef Zombies”. These corals and other reef organisms have a normal appearance, however, are actually sterile; unable to reproduce and virtually dead. Oxybenzone and other UV absorbing compounds can contribute to coral bleaching, which is much talked about phenomena in the past several years. Coral bleaching is when life-sustaining algae that live in the coral structures ejects itself and disappears, leaving the coral skeletons white and bare. This typically happens due to ocean temperature changes, stress or pollution. While some amount of coral bleaching is dubbed normal especially after cyclones or similar natural events, recent years have shown greater areas of coral bleaching occurring, and most importantly, the algae not returning to breathe life back into the stark white skeletons. In 1998, an enormous underwater heatwave killed 16% of the corals on reefs worldwide, which was triggered by the El Niño and was dubbed the first major global coral bleaching event. The second bleaching from El Niño was 2010, and the third and longest event yet in 2015.

For more information on coral bleaching, learn about it here, or check out one of the methods I helped implement in Cambodia to create a Coral Nursery.

The Ocean Agency / XL Catlin Seaview Survey / Stephanie Roach

Since 1980, 90% of the Reefs in the Caribbean have died, partially due to the enormous amounts of sunscreen used by tourists. The issue has been deemed urgent enough to have certain parts of Mexico to ban oxybenzone products from eco-reserves, and Palau (Pacific Ocean) has banned Oxybenzone from Jelly Fish Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site. However, it’s not just oxybenzone that has been found to damage reefs, below are all the points you should keep in mind when picking your sunscreen

What is Reef Safe Sunscreen?

Primarily, the sunscreens we use are chemical based sunscreens, meaning that when coming into contact with UV light, they absorb the harmful rays protecting the skin. The second type of sunscreens available is physical barrier sunscreens, which create a physical barrier and simply do not allow the UV and UVB light to penetrate these. These physical barrier sunscreens depend more on minerals such as Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide to protect the skin. From poking around in drugstores, I found that these physical sunscreens are generally used more for children’s sunscreens, as they provide better protection and are harder to get off the skin. They both have pros and cons as listed here, however, it is precisely the chemical ones which have oxybenzone and similar ingredients damaging our reefs..

Learn About Labels

The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens are the most problematic, even though preservatives can also pose an environmental threat. Avoid these ingredients:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octixonate
  • Oxtocrylene
  • Butylparaben
  • Octinoxate
  • 4-Methylbenzylidine Camphor

With an entire list on Haereticus Environmental Laboratory’s list

Not All Physical Barrier Sunscreens Are Good

While Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are the ingredients you want to see on the back of your sunscreen, if they are uncoated and nano-sized (less than 35nano meters) they can enter the cells of invertebrates. This would cause oxidative stress in sunlight, basically killing the cells. So you are looking for coated, non-nano ingredients. 


Simple Formulas

Even when using plant-based oils in addition to sunscreens, such as eucalyptus and lavender, they can actually be dangerous to invertebrates while Beeswax can contain industrial insecticides. Is honey vegan though?

Rub It In

Rubbing on the sunscreen rather than spraying it on, are more likely to stick to your skin while sprays might stick to the sand and during high tide carried to the ocean.

Use Clothes

We have all read the warnings about skin cancer being caused by the sun, especially in Australia, where two out of three adults will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70! Wear clothes, hats and try and stay out of the sun during 11:00 and 14:00.

So here you have it, these are the things you need to look out for to do your part to help decrease your impact on the reef. Here are a few reefs safe sunscreen options you can get yourself!

So please, if you’re planning a diving holiday, get yourself a reef safe option!


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