Yesterday, I spent 30 minutes at Target trying to pick out reef-friendly sunscreen. I decided I would go home and do some research because I thought this would be interesting/helpful information to share, but BOY WAS IT A RABBIT HOLE! Sunscreen is crazy. Here are my fast facts/conclusions that I came to and some options of reef-friendly (and human health friendly) sunscreens. If you want to keep reading, I’ve included more of my research after my picks.
All of this is important while swimming/snorkeling/diving near a reef. If you’re not near a reef, sunscreen dilutes in the ocean and does not have an effect. I am personally going to make a permanent switch to mineral sunscreen, but that is also based on human health effects of chemical sunscreens (which I didn’t know before looking into this!)
Always apply sunscreen 20 minutes before going in the water. No matter what you use, this minimizes the amount that rinses off in the first place!
Wear a rash guard to minimize the amount of sunscreen you need to use!
Always check ingredient lists because the “reef-friendly” claim is not regulated.
Look for Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide as the only active ingredients (it will usually say mineral sunscreen on the front of the bottle). Sunscreens with lower percentages of Zinc Oxide are safer for reefs.
Avoid mineral spray sunscreen unless buying it will make you use more sunscreen (ultimately the best sunscreen is the one you actually use in my opinion!) Definitely avoid mineral spray sunscreen with Titanium Dioxide. If you do choose to buy a mineral spray sunscreen (which Rivet and I have because we use it so much more often!) be sure to spray it on outside, where you and others are less likely to inhale it, and do not spray your face!
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In order starting with the best in each category (determined by percentage of Zinc Oxide). I decided to choose top rated sunscreens from brands that I am familiar with that you can find at Sephora, Ulta, Target, or Walmart (hello bello!). It’s important to note that not all items within a brand are approved! For example, the Supergoop CC Cream is the only moisturizer by Supergoop that received top ratings on the EWG scale. The “baby” versions of many sunscreens (Sun Bum for example) are often the best for the reef (and adults) too.
Sport/Beach/Body sunscreen picks:
If you prefer sprays (apply outside and don’t spray your face!):
Face sunscreen picks:
Ingredients to look for:
Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. These are the safest for human health (except in spray sunscreens!) They do not penetrate the skin, BUT can be dangerous if inhaled-- especially Titanium Dioxide which is a possible carcinogen when inhaled in large doses. Therefore spray sunscreens containing Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide might be dangerous (not approved for sale in Europe).
Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are mostly used in nanoparticles today-- otherwise mineral sunscreen would be more chalky (claims of "non-nanoparticles" can be misleading). Unfortunately, Zinc Oxide nanoparticles have been found to be harmful to coral. Therefore, it is best to look for options with lower percentages of Zinc Oxide (which will still provide adequate sun protection).
(https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/executive-summary/; https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen/report/nanoparticles-in-sunscreen/; https://labmuffin.com/is-your-sunscreen-killing-coral-the-science-with-video/)
Ingredients to avoid:
Oxybenzone and Octinoxate are toxic to algae that live within corals, and stunts the growth of corals (these were both banned in Hawaii--effective 2021). These both have high toxicity concerns for humans and affect the reproductive system.
Octocrylene is also on the HEL list (chemicals that are known pollutants) and is found in "reef safe" sunscreens— so you always need to read ingredient lists!