Updated: Jun 18
Are you using reef safe sunscreen? The topic can be undoubtedly confusing — many surfers and beachgoers alike don't realize that not all sunscreen is created equal.
Some chemicals in sunscreen can harm you — and the ecosystem.
In this article, we'll break down reef-safe sunscreen, and the best reef safe sunscreen options for you to use now and in the future.
Why Use Reef Safe Sunscreen?
Sunscreen has come far since the importance of protecting one’s skin from UV (ultra-violet, denoting their place on the light spectrum) rays become prevalent in the mid-20th century.
We know now that harmful chemical sunscreens don’t just stay on top of the skin...they’re absorbed into the bloodstream, where chemicals should generally not be.
We know now that aerosols from spray-on options lead to damage in the ozone layer...and more intense UV rays.
And we now know about the connection between the main ingredient of chemical sunscreens, oxybenzone, and reef bleaching and death...leading to an unbalanced and unhealthy aquatic ecosystem.
Because oxybenzone was also found to lower sperm count, alter breast milk, and exacerbate the development of breast cancer, laws banning oxybenzone sunscreens finally started getting passed in coastal states like Florida and Hawaii in 2017 and 2018.
Armed with this healthy knowledge, a plethora of reef-safe sunscreen options are now available that are more enjoyable than the thick pure Zinc of the 80s.
Next, we'll look at five of the best reef safe sunscreen options on the market today that in the short term can keep you from getting sunburned and in the long term, don't harm you or the ecosystem.
The Best Reef Safe Sunscreen Today
Tropic Sport is a small company originally developed in Australia before solidifying its US market in Hawaii with the help of pro surfer and vlogger Jamie O’Brien.
Its Down Under roots led this reef-safe sunscreen to be held to Australian sun protection standards, specifically its effectiveness and length of protection while remaining in the water — four hours between applications as opposed to the US standard of 90 minutes.
Being a mineral sunscreen that utilizes reef and human-friendly zinc oxide and titanium oxide, it stays on top of the skin to block harmful rays without entering the wearer’s bloodstream.
The company also revamped its blue-and-white packaging from the plastic bottles of four years ago to aluminum tubes that can be recycled infinitely more times than plastic, which can only go through 2-3 recycles.
Though it’s white like zinc, Tropic Sport’s cream blends better, helping you enjoy a session as yourself, not Casper the Friendly Ghost — unless you don’t mind that and prefer butter protection, because they have a stick for that.
All Good is exactly what it sounds like: it’s all good.
With a complete line of protective lip balms and reef-safe sunscreens for water people of all ages, this small business born on California’s Central Coast will protect the human and reef alike through truly enjoyable methods.
Are you one of those surfers that prefer a nice tin of sunscreen butter over lotion?
They’ve got you covered.
The many lip balm scents and the mineral sunscreen for adults and children all smell delightful and blend in fully to protect your skin and your image equally (even including a tinted option, though you’ll want to avoid possibly staining white things with it).
My favorite is the spray-on option that works perfectly for those hard-to-reach spots that are completely devoid of aerosols — it’s just pure air, much like the breath of fresh air that is this women-owned, no-testing-on-animals, reef-safe sunscreen.
Another reef safe sunscreen option: SunBum.
SunBum has been killing the sunscreen marketing game for years: that adorable name, the super-chill gorilla logo you’d totally be down to be seen at popular beaches with over the Coppertone baby butt, and some high-quality promotion from the likes of Strider Wasilewski.
While it’s a great sunscreen that is oxybenzone-free, you need to be careful when selecting which SunBum product you’ll be taking to the beach because only the specifically-marked reef-safe sunscreen out of SunBum’s many offerings lacks oxytinocate, which is just as harmful to reefs as oxybenzone.
So look for the packaging that resembles wood grain with yellow accents and double-check for that oxytinocate-free marker alongside the excellent SunBum-wide tags of being hypoallergenic, cruelty-free, and gluten-free.
Everyday California is a San Diego-based outdoor lifestyle brand that sells a wide variety of useful and sustainable products (like board shorts made from recycled plastic bottles!), but their reef-safe sunscreen is right up there with the best of them.
This broad-spectrum reef safe mineral sunscreen option is cruelty-free, and with blue algae and sea kelp extracts, it’s uniquely hydrating while protecting you from sunburns.
Its effectiveness in water exceeds the national requirement with re-application suggested every 2 hours, and their spray-on option is also aerosol-free.
In addition to containing zero oxytocin and oxybenzone, this reef safe sunscreen has no phenoxyethenol, parabens, or scent (even though rosemary, sunflower, and jojoba extracts are part of their hydrating formula).
The lotion and spray do go on white, but if you agree that enjoying the great outdoors in a way that’s safe for you and the environment is well worth looking like you’re rocking some proper zinc, look for the bear carrying a surfboard.
The thing about reef-safe sunscreen is that zinc oxide is the main ingredient that allows for sun protection that doesn’t destroy the reef or affect the human body negatively, and zinc can be a bit thick when it’s only added to natural ingredients.
Luckily, the majority of surfers don’t mind some visible sun protection if it is in the interest of a healthy ocean, and Encinitas-based all-natural Manda sun care offers not just a less ghostly tinted organic sun-paste, but tinted sun-paste in three different shades for varying skin tones.
Game changer in not only protecting the skin in you’re in, but also feeling like the protection was made for your beautiful individual self.
Also, enjoy gazing upon that beautiful self with the super handy mirror under the lid of the sun-paste tins for easy application (brilliant).
The pastes will also show love to your skin with the coconut oil, shea butter, and cocoa butter in them, and Manda’s less-thick sun cream and nurturing paw-paw salve help keep the biggest organ of the human body healthy and safe.
The Bottom Line: Reef Safe Sunscreen
The uplifting response to the harm caused by chemical sunscreens to both humans and reefs is only growing as more laws and products support a healthier aquatic ecosystem for our future.
Now it’s up to all of us, from the occasional beachgoer to the avid dawn patrol surfer, to support this wave of change by avoiding all sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and oxytocin in favor of those reef-safe sunscreens containing minerals like zinc and titanium oxide until these options become the primary options that come to mind when we’re looking to protect our skin.