What is reef-safe sunscreen?

A Drop in the Ocean Tacoma Zero Waste Sustainable Living Blog What is Reef Safe Sunscreen and Why Does It Matter?
Listen to the audio of this post here:

This post first appeared in our weekly 
Make Waves Mondays email series on May 24, 2021.

You’ve probably heard the term “reef-safe,” “coral-safe,” or “ocean-safe” sunscreen, especially in recent years. But what exactly is reef-safe sunscreen, how can you be sure a sunscreen is actually reef-safe, and why does it freaking matter, anyway?

Don’t worry, friend. I gotchu.

Reef-safe sunscreen is something I wasn’t familiar with until my first trip to Baja in 2017. The packing list specifically noted “reef-safe sunscreen,” and TBH I’ve always been really, really bad at actually wearing sunscreen in the first place, so I went to REI and I said, “I need some reef-safe sunscreen.” And the guy was like, “Here you go!” And I was like, “Thanks!”

Super thrilling story, right? lol.

Then, one of the girls on that Baja trip wrote her research paper that semester on reef-safe sunscreens and why they matter. I was super intrigued and started to realize just how important it was.

So, let’s take a look at traditional sunscreens and how they differ from reef-safe sunscreens.

What’s the dealio with traditional sunscreens?

Have you heard of “coral bleaching?” It actually looks a lot like it sounds. Here’s a really handy graphic from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):

A Drop in the Ocean Sustainable Living Zero Waste Shop Coral Bleaching graphic

Most commonly, coral bleaching occurs from changes in water temperature (looking at you, climate change), but it also occurs from pollution and, yes, traditional sunscreen.

Traditional sunscreens (also known as chemical sunscreens), including the brand names we’re all probably most familiar with, are made with ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate. When corals are exposed to these chemicals, they have the same reaction as they would with rising ocean temperatures. And globally, we’re washing about 6,000 tons of sunscreen into our coral reefs every year.

Oh yeah, and research has found that oxybenzone is actually an endocrine disruptor, especially worrisome for children.

And if these issues are affecting coral reefs and our hormone systems, they’re probably affecting more than just corals in the oceans. When we get 50% of our oxygen from oceans, I’m not super keen on taking that risk.

What makes a sunscreen “reef-safe”?

Reef-safe, or mineral, sunscreens create a physical barrier on the surface of your skin to protect from UVA and UVB rays. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, absorb into your skin and create a chemical barrier by absorbing UV and turning it into heat.

The two ingredients that are used in reef-safe sunscreens are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Both of these ingredients have been determined to be safest for our ocean life.

Our refillable sunscreen is made with zinc oxide.

Unfortunately, like many “buzzwords” we hear a lot today (think, “eco-friendly,” “all-natural,” even “biodegradable”), there isn’t actually any regulation around the term “reef-safe.” So we can’t just look at a sunscreen label that says it’s reef-safe and know for sure.

We have to actually look at the ingredients to confirm for ourselves. These are the ones you’ll want to avoid:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan

How safe is reef-safe?

It’s pretty much agreed that as long as your sunscreen doesn’t include any of those nasty ingredients I just listed, and its base is zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, it’s reef-safe.

However, there hasn’t been enough research yet to know how these ingredients affect ocean ecosystems in higher concentrations. For example, if thousands of people are in the water at a single beach, how do the ingredients in their sunscreens affect the ecosystem, even if they don’t contain any “non-reef-safe” ingredients?

None of this is to say that we should give up sunscreen. I’m gonna pass on cancer if I can help it.

So what are we to do?

Well. First, choose reef-safe sunscreen. Bonus points if it’s zero waste, plastic-free and refillable 😉

Second, cover up. Remember that research paper my classmate wrote? She actually found that the only way to 100% protect our reefs is to wear things like rash guards. (Another thing I knew nothing about until the summer of 2017.)

A Drop in the Ocean Sustainable Living Zero Waste Shop


If you’re in the market for a rash guard, or other super cute (aka whale shark and other ocean conservation themed 😍) water apparel, check out Waterlust. If you use this link, 25% of your sale will go back to support our ocean conservation partner, and Baja EcoWarrior Retreat host, Vermilion Sea Institute.

In summary…

Get on the water. Water has amazing positive effects on our mental and physical health (a topic we’ll discuss on our Baja Retreat this summer), and it can instill a sense of wonderment in us.

So go find some water. Get in it. Enjoy it.

But cover up with some reef-safe sunscreen or a rash guard first :) Let’s do our part to save our reefs, together.

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