The concept of reef safe sunscreen came to light around the year 2018 when the state of Hawaii made waves by banning the sale of sunscreens containing two chemicals- oxybenzone and octinoxate- that have been linked to harming our coral reefs. These chemicals have been shown to cause coral bleaching that can result in long term damage and death of coral. Coral reefs are giant living organisms that support more than 25% of all marine life by providing food and shelter for aquatic animals and plant life. These harmful chemicals commonly used in many commercial sunscreens can interfere with coral’s reproduction and growth cycles, ultimately leading to bleaching and death.
Six more popular tourist destinations have followed suit, banning the sale of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. The Western Pacific island nation of Palau was the first country to ban sunscreens with certain chemicals (their list contains 10 banned chemicals) in 2020, many locations in Mexico now require the use of a reef safe sunscreen, and the Caribbean island of Bonaire– a snorkeling and diving mecca- requires reef safe sunscreen. Aruba and the US Virgin Islands joined Bonaire as additional Caribbean islands that require reef safe sunscreen and Miami, Florida just became the second location within the US with such a ban, enacting their law in January of 2021.
So what are we do to? Whatever the color of your skin, it’s more critical than ever to protect ourselves from the sun’s harmful rays. But we are also realizing we must be conscious of protecting the coral reefs from the harmful chemicals in our sunscreens. This is where “reef safe sunscreens” come into play. Unfortunately, “reef safe” is not a regulated term, meaning that there is no universally agreed upon definition and companies are not required to test their products to prove their safety. In general though, reef safe sunscreen does not contain the two main offending chemicals- oxybenzone and octinoxate- and instead uses minerals such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as their active ingredients.
Ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide sit on top of the skin to protect skin from the sun- which means they can be a bit harder to rub into the skin, especially darker skin. But don’t worry! We’re going to cover some reef safe sunscreen options that are great for all skin tones!
Reef Safe Sunscreen for Darker Skin Tones
Black Girl Sunscreen
One of the top reef safe sunscreens for darker skin tones is Black Girl Sunscreen. This Black, female owned business makes an oxybenzone and octinoxate free sunscreen specifically designed for Black skin. The company wanted to address the problem of melanoma and other sun related skin conditions in Black people while also creating a product that didn’t leave a white cast on Black skin. Black Girl Sunscreen uses reef safe ingredients and their sunscreen also includes a moisturizer which helps it absorb into skin more readily so it doesn’t leave a white film behind. You can shop Black Girl Sunscreen directly from their website and products are also available at your local Target store!
Dr. Dennis Gross’s All-Physical Lightweight Wrinkle Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen
Dr. Dennis Gross’s All-Physical Lightweight Wrinkle Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen is designed for all skin tones. It is a reef safe, fragrance free sunscreen that relies on transparent, non-nano zinc oxide as it’s main ingredient. This form of zinc oxide is not only reef safe but is better absorbed into skin, making it a great choice for darker skin tones. You can purchase this SPF 30 sunscreen on Dr. Gross’s website and also at Sephora and Nordstrom,
EleVen by Venus Williams Unrivaled Sun Serum SPF 35
EleVen by Venus Williams is made in collaboration with The Sunscreen Company and is specifically designed for darker skin tones. Users give it positive reviews, saying that while it takes a minute to rub in- once it’s in it does not leave any white cast like many other mineral based sunscreens tend to leave on Black skin. This reef safe formula uses zinc oxide for protection and has a semi-matte finish that users love! You can purchase EleVen by Venus at Ulta Beauty!
UnSun EVERYDAY Mineral Tinted Face Sunscreen
This reef safe sunscreen uses both zinc oxide and titanium dioxide for overall sun protection, plus it’s designed specifically for darker skin tones so it won’t leave any white residue behind! Users love it’s silky smooth finish and the fact once rubbed in, it’s invisible on dark skin. You can buy this full line of sunscreen on the at UnSunCosmetics.
Reef Safe Sunscreens for Lighter Skin
California Baby Face and Body Sunscreen
California Baby was one of the first few brands to make a reef safe sunscreen- and it’s still ranked as one of the most effective options on the market. It’s not cheap- but it’s well worth the price. California Baby also makes an ultrasensitive skin formula that is amazing for people with allergies, eczema, or sensitive skin. The only downside is that it does take a little while to fully rub in, but once it’s all absorbed it doesn’t leave residue on lighter skin tones. Yyear after year, California Baby performs well on tests that measure it’s effectiveness in sun protection. You can buy California Baby reef safe sunscreen on Amazon.
Badger Sunscreen is another excellent reef safe option for light to medium skin tones. Badger uses non-nano zinc oxide as it’s active ingredient and it offers a full range of sunscreen products that are hypoallergenic and come in varying levels of SPF protection. Like most mineral based sunscreens, it’s a bit harder to fully rub in- but we find that Badger can be a bit easier to get to blend in that some other mineral based options. It also outperforms most other mineral based sunscreens in terms of protection! You can shop Badger’s full line of reef safe sunscreens on Amazon.
Blue Lizard- Australia
Blue Lizard makes mineral based, reef safe sunscreen in a variety of formulas including a fragrance-free sensitive skin formula and a spray on formula! It’s one of the few reef safe options that comes in a spray-on formula, making it popular among families with little kids as it’s just so much easier to apply. Although “reef safe” and “easy to apply” don’t normally belong in the same sentence, don’t worry- Blue Lizard is another brand that continually outperforms most others in terms of sun protection!
Reef Safe SPF Lip Balms
Whatever your skin tone, there’s one area of the body that most people leave unprotected from the sun’s harmful rays and that’s the LIPS! The skin on your lips is actually a bit thinner than the rest of your skin, meaning it can burn much more easily. It’s important to find a good lip balm with SPF protection and re-apply it regularly when you’re out in the sun! Though the amount of sunscreen needed to protect the lips is far less than the amount needed to cover the rest of the body- meaning there is less to leach into the water- there are some great reef safe SPF lip balms out there so you can stick with those mineral based products for environmental safety!
Sun Bum Mineral SPF Lip Balm
Sun Bum Mineral SPF Lip Balm is a vegan, gluten free, cruelty free and reef safe lip balm that offers SPF 30 protection for your lips! It’s designed for sensitive skin and will leave your lips feeling silky and smooth while also protecting them from the sun!
Badger – Broad Spectrum Sunscreen Clear Lip Balm Stick
Badger is one of our favorite reef safe sunscreens for lighter skin but it’s mineral based SPF lip balm is great for all skin tones. It uses zinc oxide as it’s main ingredient but goes on clear and smoother. Badger doesn’t use any fragrances or flavors in their lip balm so it’s perfect for sensitive skin. It’s also sold in packs of four- which makes it perfect for people who are always losing their lip balm!
Supergloop Play Lip Balm with Mint
Supergloop makes a great SPF 30 lip balm that comes in a minty flavor. In addition to it’s SPF protection, it uses shea butter, antioxidant-rich honey and sunflower oil to help moisturize and keep lips soft and safe!
Now that you’ve got the perfect reef safe sunscreen for your skin tone- it’s time to head to the beach! Be sure to check out our posts on the Best US Beach Destinations for Families as well as our guide to the Best Caribbean Islands for Families to help you plan your next beach vacation! Don’t forget to pack your sunscreen!!