Reef Safe Sunscreen 101: Everything You Need to Know for Safe Sun Protection

what is reef safe sunscreen

As humans, every one of our actions carries great consequences on the natural world. Who would have thought that just simply enjoying a sunny day at the beach could wreak havoc on the marine ecosystem at its most vital level? That the sunscreen we harmlessly wear to protect our skin is quietly wreaking havoc on the vibrant and flourishing aquatic environment? That sunscreen harms coral reefs, the one foundation of marine life?

Now that we know how much the simple act of wearing sunscreen affects the environment, we can't turn a blind eye.

But that does not mean that we have to stop enjoying the serenity of our summer days. Neither does it mean that we should be at the mercy of UV rays whenever we visit the beach. Despite the impact of our carelessness, when we put our mind to it, we are capable of outstanding wonders — In this case Reef-safe sunscreen.

In this article, we will explore what reef-safe sunscreen is and if it can help us protect our skin without endangering the environment. We will look deeper into its effects and see if there is a catch. By the end, you will know everything you need to make your own conclusions about reef-safe sunscreens.

What is Reef Safe Sunscreen?

Reef safe sunscreens have been explicitly named. They are sun protection products that do not contain ingredients that bring harm to coral reefs and marine life.

A few common compounds including oxybenzone and octinoxate in traditional sunscreens have been shown to contribute to coral bleaching, slowly eroding the foundation of the marine ecosystem. But it doesn't stop there, these chemicals also damage coral DNA, causing even more dire long-term consequences to marine life.

With such consequences in mind, reef-safe sunscreen is formulated with conscientious ingredients that protect your skin without adversely impacting the environment.

Is Biodegradable Sunscreen the Same as Reef Safe Sunscreen?

Another problem with the makeup of traditional sunscreen is how difficult it is for it to break down in the natural environment. Instead, they accumulate and continue to affect generations after generations of marine life.

Naturally, many modern sunscreens have been revised so that they break down more quickly in the environment. And it is not uncommon to see 'biodegradable' on the label of sunscreens in stores. However, being biodegradable does not automatically translate to mean the product is reef-safe.

Biodegradable sunscreens might still contain harmful compounds to coral reefs and aquatic life. Therefore, while the ideal is a biodegradable and reef-safe sunscreen, there is no guarantee that just because it was made to break down more easily, it is completely eco-friendly and reef-safe.

What Makes Sunscreen Reef Safe?

Sunscreen safe for coral reefs are the culmination of a different approach to protecting human skin from the effects of UV rays and sunscreen safe for.. They rely on mineral-based ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide that act as physical barriers to scatter harmful UV rays away from the skin.

A genuine reef-safe sunscreen must avoid ingredients known to harm coral reefs and marine biology. The key harmful ingredients you need to know and avoid when choosing a sunscreen are:


Oxybenzone is a major chemical that helps to block UV light but has been found to cause genetic damage and endocrine disruption in corals. This disruption impairs their growth and reproductive process, limiting coral's ability to replace older reefs and sustain marine ecology.


Octinoxate works very similarly to oxybenzone. They are both popular chemicals for filtering UV light. It attacks the DNA makeup and endocrine systems of growing coral larvae and can activate dormant viral infections. Octinoxate works its way up by accumulating slowly over time in coral populations, eventually leading to a gradual decline in their numbers.


Octocrylene is one of the earliest substitutes for UV filters. Unlike octinoxate, it absorbs and converts UV rays into heat instead of diverting it away — but is octocrylene safe? While it hasn’t been studied as deeply as octinoxate and oxybenzone, octocrylene is known to cause oxidative stress in corals. Plus it is just as difficult to break down.


Parabens are preservatives used in cosmetics to prevent the growth of bacteria, mold, and other fungi in them. They have been shown to have toxic effects on the biology of many aquatic species-


Triclosan is another preservative that acts mainly to prevent the growth of bacteria in cosmetic products. When it leaks into the oceans, it severely affects the many marine organisms, especially algae that are attached to and work symbiotically with coral reefs.

Is Mineral Sunscreen Reef Safe?

Mineral sunscreens are the simplest and most effective alternatives to reef-damaging compounds. The most popular ingredients in them are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which are chosen for both their effectiveness in protecting the skin and in their harmlessness to coral reefs.

These compounds work primarily by reflecting harmful UV rays away from the skin rather than absorbing them. They also have the added benefit of breaking down much more easily and faster in the environment.

Is Zinc oxide reef safe? Nano-sized zinc oxide is able to penetrate the skin to work instead of sitting on it as a whitish visible layer seen in mineral sunscreen. But this ability to penetrate the skin is also the cause for concern that it might add to the oxidative stress to marine life. Regardless, even nano-sized zinc oxide is reef-safe but research continues on its possible impacts on aquatic ecology.

biodegradable sunscreen

Is Chemical Sunscreen Bad for Your Skin?

Sunscreen comes with two types of active ingredients: mineral or physical sunscreen and chemical sunscreen. So far we have looked into the effects of both types on the environment, but is one safer than the other?

Chemical sunscreens just like mineral sunscreens were created to protect the skin from the negative effects of UV rays on the skin. They protect the skin from the effects of the sun such as sunburn, breakdown of collagen (which leads to signs of premature aging like wrinkles, sagging, and age spots), as well as the risk of cancer.

The difference between the two compounds is their mechanisms of action. Where most chemical sunscreen penetrates the skin to act as a sponge that absorbs and diverts UV rays, mineral sunscreen forms an additional layer on the skin that can reflect UV rays.

Because of these effects, mineral sunscreen can appear visibly on the surface of the skin as a whitish material. It is also inconsistent and difficult to spread on the skin. Zinc oxide is often recommended for kids and people with sensitive skin because of its gentle effects on the skin.

what makes sunscreen reef safe

What Are the Different Reef Safe Sunscreen Ingredients?

Reef safe sunscreens are mostly made from mineral or physical compounds that are known to be safe for both humans and the environment. The most common ones are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Natural oils and plant extracts like coconut oil, aloe vera, chamomile, and shea butter are often included to soothe the skin and provide relief from the harshness of the sun. All these ingredients occur naturally and break down easily in the open environment.

What Sunscreens Are Reef Safe?

Sunscreen products made with mineral sunscreen are reef-safe as long as they don't contain unknown chemical compounds and those we have mentioned before now. Many brands have committed to creating reef-safe sunscreen and is generally available and easy to pick up in different sizes and forms.

what sunscreens are reef safe

Leave a comment