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3 Of the Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens

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Whether you are going out for a day of shore diving or snorkeling, one thing most people worry about (and rightly so) is the sun.

Now there are a lot of different sunscreens out there to choose from and it can get confusing on which one to buy. You want to choose the one that does not damage the corals or hurt the wildlife while still being affordable.

diver or snorkeller putting on sunscreen

There are some off-the-shelf sunscreens that claim they are reef-safe and others don’t even mention if they are reef safe. It can be difficult to choose which one to buy. We have tested and outlined the top three sunscreens on the market that are actually reef safe and will also protect you from the sun.

Read on below to figure out which one suits you best and is also available for you. There are other products on the market but in our opinion, these are the best reef-safe sunscreens.

Why is Reef Safe Sunscreen Important?

photo of dying reefs

There are a handful of common ingredients in sunscreens that can be harmful to reefs and other marine life.

The sun-blocking ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene (to name a few) are deemed safe for human use but they have been found to intensify the reef bleaching associated with warming ocean temperatures. These are banned in certain countries like Australia and some states and cities like Hawaii and Key West.

There is no sunscreen that has been proven 100% safe for aquatic wildlife and sunscreen is the best way to protect you.

That is why we have researched the issue and tested all the sunscreens that claim to be “reef safe” for you, and made this best list.

What are the pros of Protecting the Reefs?

Besides the obvious that they are critical to the lives of the ocean and fishes, reefs are debatably the most valuable ecosystems on earth next to the rainforest. Providing food to over 25 percent of all marine life and over half a billion people a day according to NOAA. 

healthy thriving reef

They even theorize that 50% to 80% of the air on earth comes from them. Coral reefs provide humans with medicine like bone grafting among other things. It is an untapped resource that is being used more each week. 

They also protect our shores, businesses, communities, and beaches from damage from waves, storms, and flooding. Coral reefs are a natural barrier, and according to the University of Stanford ” By breaking up waves, coral reefs protect an estimated 200 million people from natural disasters and rising sea levels. The findings could help focus coral conservation efforts in high-risk areas.”

Besides all this, they are just amazing to dive with and see the sea. 

Which Is The Best Reef Safe Sunscreen For You?

Stream to sea sport reef safe suncreen on white background
  • Active Ingredients: Zinc Oxide 19% (non-nano, EcoSafe Zinc™), Alaria Esculenta (Wakame Seaweed),Camellia Sinenis (Green Tea) Leaf, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil,and Turcuma Longa (Turmeric).

This is our favorite product and for good reason. Being a diver and having been using another original reef-safe sunscreen for a while now this one truly stands out. You will only need a dap of it as it goes a long way so it will save you the issue of having to buy large amounts, but having a back up on hand it always good.

While I used it in the past as it was the only one of its kind it wasn’t the best as it didn’t come off at the end of the day. Now though the new formula goes on easily, blends in really well, and after a shower at the end of the day come off.

Stream2Sea helps out with local causes and ecosystems and protects the waterways and you can read about that here on the site, but that is from the Stream2Sea site. Here is an outside independent neutral party the Aereticus Enviromental Laboratory results.

It is the highest price point on this list but not by much. It also has a biodegradable bottle to make it even better. I even have a photo of Reef and Marine Life Safety Tests from the site below.

Carbon footprint 100% Recyclable & Low carbon footprint! According Stream2Seas Site

Honestly, I have not found any cons of this besides the price point, but I don’t see it as a con as you pay for what you get.

Other specs on the product from the website are that it is: USDA Certifed, Reef Safe, Post Consumer Blend, Vegan, Anti-Oxidant Blend, Broad Spectrum Protection, Paraben Free, Gluten Free, PABA Free, Hawaii Act 104 Reef Compliant, Oxybenzone & Octinoxate Free, Non-Nano, Fragrance Free

What we love

  • Best reef-safe formula
  • Rubbed in easily
  • Exceptionally long-lasting
  • Can be used anywhere in the world

Downsides

 
Coral safe face stick reef safe sunscreen product shot
  • Active Ingredients: The only active ingreditents are 6% zinc oxide and 6% titanium dioxide.

Coral Safe sunscreen with SPF 30 is a solid sunscreen with the lowest price point out of all the other ones that we found but still coral safe and usable.

The formula does not have nanoparticles and is made for those with sensitive skin. This was one of the main comments I have heard from people saying that they have had issues with other sunscreens but not this one. 

I for one had no issue with it. It is a bit thicker to put on (as with most natural sunscreens) so I had to rub it in for a while (a minute or two longer than usual, no big deal). It still had a light sheen on my skin but that went away after a while and worth not killing the corals and protecting my skin for up to the said 80 minutes but last over 2 hours for me. 

It worked well in the water and stayed on for the time it said. The sunscreen is also labeled “Biodegradable” and “Eco-Friendly” and can be used anywhere in the US as some places restrict types that can be used and even brought into the state fining you if you break that law. 

Other specs on the product from the website are that it is: Mineral sunscreen, SPF 30 Reef-safe, No parabens or emulsifiers, fragrance-free, Safe for sensitive skin, kids, and babies, Never tested on animals, Made in the USA

What we love

  • Best beginner computer on the market
  • All-natural & non-toxic formula
  • Small & lightweight makes it ideal for travel

Downsides

  • Takes a while to rub it in
  • Small, so you may need a few for a longer trip.

with Worldwide Shipping

Man holding Sun Bum Eco-Friendly Sunscreen Spray
  • Active Ingredients: Avobenzone 3%, Homosalate 15%, Octisalate 5%, Octocrylene 7%

This product we really like this as it is a spray that is not killing the ozone and is easy to apply. It is cooling to put on and in a lightweight bottle.

For most the smell is amazing but there is that small percentage that does not like it. Honestly, I found it nice, but it is a very beachy smell.

It is very easy to apply which is hard to find with eco-friendly products. It dries very quickly (says within 15 minutes and I don’t disagree). It was not sticky and served me well swimming and at the beach, as a diver, I wear a wetsuit so not sure how it would stay underwater for that length of time but I don’t doubt it. Again I had no issues with the product but some people have said that it irritated their skin.

While on the other hand, I know people that use it and so do their children so I believe it is a matter of allergies and not the makeup of the sunscreen. It is also vegan and reef safe and can be used in Hawaii which has the highest standards of sunscreen in the country.

They did use to have ingredients that were banned a few years ago in Hawaii but have changed the formal to make it reef safe.

Other specs on the product from the website that may be of interest to some are that is is: Broad Spectrum Protection, Hypoallergenic, Cruelty-Free, Vegan, Oil Free, Paraben Free, Gluten Free, PABA Free, Propylene Glycol Free, Retinyl Palmitate Free, Hawaii Act 104 Reef Compliant, Oxybenzone & Octinoxate Free

What we love

  • Easy to use spray
  • Smells amazing
  • Highest SPF Protection

Downsides

  • Spray bottle will run out faster
  • Harder to recycle
  • Larger Bottle 

with Worldwide Shipping

What is the Difference Between Mineral and Chemical Based Sunscreen?

In simple terms, a mineral which is what we call physical sunscreens deflects UV and UVB rays and chemical sunscreens absorb them and use oddly use heat to break them up. says dermatologist Dhaval Bhanusali, MD.  Physical sunscreens usually are natural, like zinc/ titanium oxide and chemical sunscreens are synthetic. 

Nanoparticles are not perfect, even if natural like zinc/ titanium dioxide. “Nanoparticles still pose an increased toxicological risk because, just like in humans, they can be absorbed into the bloodstream of humans and marine life,”. The impacts are still being studied.

All this information is from a Healthline Article from multiple studies and doctors, you can read the whole thing here if you would like to learn more. Physical vs Chemical Sunscreen

a wall of sunscreen with all the different options there are today

What To Look For When Buying A Reef-Safe Sunscreen

A reef-safe sunscreen is truly what is best for the environment and the creatures living in it. Some sunscreens claim to be reef safe but there are no regulations in the US on how they can label the bottles. Also, the ones above may not be available to buy in your area. I have outlined a guide of what to look for in a reef-safe sunscreen if the ones above are not available. I like to use mineral-only sun-screen as you know what is in it but it is not the easiest to put one and leaves a white residue. These products are safer but not the most practical to use but are stable and more water resistant than any chemicals based one that can harm the reefs and wildlife which is the main goal of buying one.

Harmful Ingredients

First off if the list of ingredients says any of these below do not buy it (this list is from the HEL list that Protects Land + Sea)

  • Octocrylene
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Parabens- All of them and there are a lot.
  • Homosalate
  • PABA
  • 4-methyl benzylidene camphor
  • Triclosan
  • Microplastics
photo of the label of chemical based sunscreen, maybe highlighting some of the harmful ingredients

Choose Non-Nano, Mineral-based

These are not associated with coral bleaching and have less impact on the reefs. You will see on the label “non-nano” This means that they are larger than 100 nanometers and too large to be ingested at least by corals.

No Single-Use Plastic

This is hard to get around it is always good to use products that are not single-use plastic packaging. This is either by using containers that are reusable, have high recycled content, or are made out of biodegradable formulas and are sustainable low eco-impact packaging. That is why we recommend the Stream2Sea  since it is the only one we can vouch for from start to finish. 

Avoid Sprays

You should stick with lotions, creams, and clays. Try to avoid spray or misting sunscreens if you can’t really try to avoid those that contain titanium dioxide as it can be harmful to your health if you breathe them in. Sayin that we still have SumBum as they seem to be the exception to the rule as they have been vetted and one of the most trustworthy companies out there for sunscreen or we would not have it one the list. 

diver using one of the toppick sunscreen (stream2sea)

Eco-Conscious Companies

If you have read this far you really do care about the reefs and all the amazing wildlife that lives in them. So why not go a little further and check out the company that you are buying the sunscreen from, so of these companies really give back to and help out the environment while others are just trying to make a quick buck.

Good Water Resistance

A sunscreen that stays on longer when you’re in the water is obviously better as you don’t have to put as much on it and is less likely to leech into the corals.

Know What “Ocean Safe” is

reef safe sunscreen product packaging

This is a very popular term that is used to confuse people sometimes. Usually, it just means that the product is just highly water-resistant and doesn’t wash off. This is good for you but may not be good for the ocean. Read more here on the full details on “Ocean Safe” and this is mostly just on materials for textiles but the general theory is the same for sunscreens, it is not good and the word can be used in unsavory ways. 

What about shampoos, lotions, and other products I wear to the beach?

Like sunscreen, all products you wear on your skin and enter the ocean with will eventually leech into the ocean. If you’re on a liveaboard or staying at a hotel near the shoreline the odds are that it will get dumped into the ocean one way or another. I use coconut oil with a bit of tea tree oil, which is often readily available in remote places.

stream2sea scuba mask defog on the beach

Companies like Stream2Sea have a line of coral-conscious body lotions, leave-in conditioners, body washes, and a lot more. Check out these products because the things you put on your body could leak chemicals into the ocean, which can have devastating effects on our coral reefs.

Welcome to our blog!
Austin on a dive baot
I am a PADI Divemaster based in South Florida. With nearly 10 years of diving experience, I have accumulated the knowledge to help readers become better divers, buy their next piece of gear, and plan their dream dive vacation! Please contact me if you have any questions.

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Essential gear care knowledge PLUS tips and tricks for cleaning, maintaining, and storing your scuba gear! Created by dive professionals working in the industry.
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FREE Scuba Gear Care Tips
Essential gear care knowledge PLUS tips and tricks for cleaning, maintaining, and storing your scuba gear! Created by dive professionals working in the industry.
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FREE Scuba Gear Care Tips
Essential gear care knowledge
PLUS tips and tricks for cleaning, maintaining, and storing your scuba gear! Created by dive professionals working in the industry.
Scuba Gear shown on an Iphone screen