Everything you need to know about reef friendly sunscreen for your next beach holidays
So you bought your sunscreen, and you’re ready to lather it on…but wait! Check the label to make sure it’s reef safe first! Reef safe sunscreen means that the active ingredients in the product are non-toxic to coral reefs and marine life in general.
So if you’re planning on going snorkelling or scuba diving while you’re out in the water, using reef safe sunscreen can help protect our beautiful reefs from negative effects. But how do we know which sunscreens are truly reef safe
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What Does It Mean for A Sunscreen To Be Reef Safe?
Lots of sunscreens claim to be “reef safe” – but what exactly does that mean?
A reef safe sunscreen, sometimes called coral safe or reef friendly sunscreen, means that your sunscreen is free of small particles and harmful chemicals that are known to potentially destroy coral reefs and marine life in world oceans.
- Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3)
- Nano-Zinc oxide
- Nano-Titanium dioxide
- 3-Benzylidene camphor
- 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor
As for small particles found in reef safe sunscreens, they must be “non-nano”, that is their particle sizes must be above 100 nanometres in diameter.
If the particles are less than 100 nanometres in diameter, it is much more likely that coral reefs may absorb them irrespective of the remaining ingredients contained in the sunscreen formula.
This is the reason why many mineral sunscreens, also known as physical sunscreens, using non-nanosized particles in their formulas are considered more eco-friendly.
Nanotization is a process by which compounds contained in beauty products are “nano-sized”, that is made smaller, for them to more quickly and fully absorb into your body.
However, for a nano-sized material to be considered a nanoparticle, it must be less than 100 nanometres in diameter.
A particle must be below 70 nanometres in diameter to enter the lungs and 50 nanometres in diameter to enter skin cells.
Some physical sunscreens use nanoparticles like nano-Zinc oxide and nano-Titanium dioxide to achieve higher SPF ratings than those formulated with non-nano particles.
Here is what makes a genuinely reef safe sunscreen:
Free from Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octocrylene, nano-Zinc oxide, nano-Titanium dioxide, OD-PABA, 3-Benzylidene camphor, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-2, and Benzophenone-8, Microplastics, Phthalates, Triclosan, and Parabens
Non-nano particle sizes above 100 nanometres in diameter
Choosing a safe sunscreen both for your skin health and the environment is important to preserve coral reefs and marine life.
Despite some limitations in their scope, below are a few studies which highlight how some harmful sunscreen ingredients can negatively impact coral reef ecosystems and sea life when they wash off in seawater:
In 2008, a clinical study spanning several tropical regions revealed that sunscreens potentially contribute to rapid and complete bleaching of hard corals, by promoting viral infections, particularly in marine areas popular with recreational human activities.
The study also suggested that sunscreen’s UV filters can bioaccumulate in aquatic animals, damaging their reproductive and development cycles (Giokas et al. 2007).
For the purpose of the laboratory study, however, higher concentrations of sunscreens than what is normally used in real life settings were directly applied to coral branches.
A 2015 laboratory study discovered that increasing concentrations of oxybenzone in planulae (species supporting coral reefs’ ecosystems), directly contributed to coral bleaching both in light and darkness. Moreover, oxybenzone distorted and hardened planulae.
Another 2017 clinical study further highlighted the potential negative health and environmental effects of oxybenzone, particularly on fish and corals, leading to reef bleaching and mortality.
A separate laboratory study in 2013 with Benzophenone-2, another harmful chemical to coral reefs and marine life, led to similar findings despite the study’s several limitations.
In a 2018 report, the International Coral Reef Initiative concluded that more research is needed to fully understand the long-term impacts of sunscreens as a whole on marine life.
Available research studies are limited due to being carried out in laboratory settings rather than in real life environments, with emphasis being laid on specific chemical ingredients only.
Wearing a safe sunscreen daily is very important to maintaining healthy skin and helping to prevent skin cancer. Consequently, regardless of your age and skin tones, consider including a good sunscreen in your daily skincare routine.
In the world of reef safe sunscreens, mineral sunscreens with non-nanosized particles are generally the preferred option, because they tend to be safer for the environment.
By acting as a physical barrier on the skin, a mineral sunscreen helps reflect harmful UVA and UVB rays away from your skin.
On the other hand, a chemical sunscreen helps absorb a defined spectrum of UV rays in the skin and dissolve them as heat through a chemical reaction.
However, it is worth noting that some non-nanosized mineral sunscreens tend to leave a ghost-like white cast on people’s skin, making them more difficult to use for people with darker skin tones.
This is why for many years, chemical ingredients like oxybenzone, PABA, and benzophenones, known to be harmful to marine life, were used to minimise sunscreens’ white cast effect.
To counteract these with new advances in science and technology, beauty companies have come up with tinted mineral sunscreens and physical sunscreens with micronized Zinc oxide or Titanium dioxide that blend across skin tones.
By reducing zinc oxide or titanium dioxide particles through a process called “micronization,” sunscreens manufacturers have managed to develop physical sunscreens that work better with many skin tones.
Micronized particles only have a few micrometres in diameter. They can subsequently be nano-sized into nano-Zinc oxide or nano-Titanium dioxide, which are nanoparticles of less than 100 nanometres in diameter.
Whilst they are healthier options for your skin, mineral sunscreens with either nano-Zinc oxide or nano-Titanium dioxide are still considered harmful to coral reefs and marine life due to the UV filters’ faster absorption into marine ecosystems.
So, how do you know the type of mineral sunscreen to pick when you are heading to the beach?
How To Choose a Good Coral Friendly Sunscreen
When you intend to go for a swim or surfing, choose a non-nanosized mineral sunscreen in the form of a mineral-based lotion or cream instead of a spray and mist.
The latter tend to be formulated with nanoparticles for them to smoothly offer broad-spectrum sun protection.
Always, pay attention to the ingredients list on the sunscreen packaging to make sure that you stay away from ingredients that are currently known to be harmful to marine life.
Read the product description online, if you can, to find out whether your sunscreen manufacturer has used either non-nano, micronized or nano-Zinc oxide or nano-Titanium dioxide in the formula.
To be honest, not all sunscreen manufacturers are upfront with such information; you will need to reach out to them for further details when unsure.
Many beauty brands that have done their absolute best to formulate mineral sunscreens that are safe for the environment will say “reef safe”, “coral friendly”, or “coral reef friendly” in their product descriptions and in some cases on their packaging.
Bear in mind that the term “reef safe” sunscreen and related terminologies are currently not subjected to FDA or European Commission cosmetic regulatory standards.
To date, there is no formal quality assurance process sunscreen manufacturers must go through by law to ensure their sunscreens are safe for coral reefs and marine life.
Like in the natural and clean beauty beauty space, a few certification bodies help beauty brands classify their sunscreens as “reef safe” or reef friendly”. The two key leaders include:
- Haereticus Protect Land + Sea (PL+S) certification
- Biorius ‘Reef-friendly’ certification
Moreover, remember that whilst FDA/EC approved mineral sunscreens with nano-Zinc oxide or Titanium dioxide may not be safe for marine life, they are considered safe for topical use.
Having said that, below is a curated list of some of the best reef-friendly sunscreens that are available on the market.
The Best Reef Safe Sunscreens – Our Picks
Here is a roundup of great reef safe sunscreen options to pack for your next beach holidays.
Dr Dennis Gross Skincare All Physical Lightweight Wrinkle Defense SPF30 50ml
Best for: all skin tones and skin types
This fragrance-free, oil-free formula with 100% mineral sunscreen shields your skin against UVA/UVB and either environmental stressors such as photoaging, pollution, and blue light.
The reef-safe sunscreen contains non-nano transparent zinc oxide that is easily blendable and soaks into your skin without leaving a white residue, including on dark skin tones. The formula sits well under makeup, giving your skin a gorgeous glow.
Buy for £46 at Net-a-Porter or Harrods
SUPERGOOP! Unseen Sunscreen SPF30 50ml
Best for: all skin tones
This non-greasy, scentless, and lightweight formula is biodegradable and certified to be reef safe. A game-changer for your UV-deflecting requirements, the product that works well under makeup, contains moisturizing sunflower oil to help provide hydration while shielding skin from harmful UVA/UVB rays.
The sweat and water-resistant formula contains red algae and meadowfoam seed extracts that leave your skin feeling smooth and hydrated with no trace of white cast residue.
Buy for £32 at Net-a-Porter
Ultrasun SPF30 Glimmer Max 150ml
Best for: radiant, glowing skin
This award-winning reef and ocean safe certified formula glides on the skin, leaving you with an invisible, non-greasy and completely odourless texture with a subtle glimmer. It provides both UVA and UVB protection as well as being hydrating for up to four hours.
The fast-absorbing and lightweight product won’t clog your pores or cause breakouts either. It’s vegan and cruelty free, helping you further minimise your impact on the environment.
Buy for £28 at Escentual or Marks and Spencer
Ultra Violette Lean Screen Mineral Mattifying Fragrance Free Skinscreen SPF50 (50ml)
Best for: oily or reactive skin
Say hello to this hydrating and non shiny reef-friendly zinc-only mineral formula that will deliver a super-soft matte effect on your skin. Perfect for reactive and oily skin, the fragrance-free formula whose colour and texture are reminiscent of a clay mask will effortlessly absorb into your skin to deliver a white cast free sun protection against harmful UV rays. Enriched with nourishing Kakadu plum, this mineral sunscreen moisturises the skin with no heavy residue for suncare aficionados to enjoy healthy skin all year round.
Buy for £34 at Harrods
Pai Skincare British Summer Time Sensitive Sunscreen 40ml
Best for: sensitive skin types
Specifically formulated for delicate and sensitive skin types, this 99% natural mineral sunscreen offers full sun protection against harmful UV rays, pollutants, and blue light.
The non-nano Zinc oxide particles used in the product formula ensures your skin receives optimum coverage whilst being respectful to coral reefs and marine life. The lightweight product works well under makeup and leaves a barely noticeable white cast that rapidly fades away a few minutes after application.
Buy for £29.00 at Lookfantastic or Feelunique
Stream2Sea Sunscreen for Body Sport SPF30 90ml
Best for: sports people
Protect Land + Sea reef-friendly certified, this mineral sunscreen contains 8.8% non-nano Titanium dioxide to optimise your sun protection against harmful UVA and UVB UV rays.
Enriched with a powerful antioxidant blend of olive leaf, green tea, tulsi, and wakame, the non-greasy product nourishes your skin and strengthens your skin barrier function against environmental stressors.
Buy for £14.99 at Walmart
REN Clean Skincare Clean Screen Mineral SPF30 50ml
Best for: pale, white skin tones
This is a mattifying reef safe sunscreen that has been formulated with 22% non-nano zinc oxide for daily use to keep out harmful UVA/UVB rays and free radicals.
The vegan formula contains antioxidant rich Passiflora edulis fruit extract to boost skin moisture and natural barrier function for a more supple and healthier skin. Rice Starch, which is another ingredient in the product formula, helps mattify your skin.
Buy for £33.00 at Lookfantastic or Liberty London
Green People Scent Free Sun Cream – SPF30 200ml
Best for: the whole family
The award-winning reef safe sun sunscreen cream from Green People is ideal for all family members heading to their beach holidays. Formulated with 84% certified organic ingredients, this vegetarian sunscreen is designed for easy application that delivers a long- lasting sun protection against harmful UV rays.
Rich in antioxidants courtesy of green tea and edelweiss , this breathable and non-clogging mineral sunscreen offers a powerful protection against free radical damage.
Buy for £25.50 at Ocado
Hawaiian Tropic Mineral Sun Milk SPF30 Face 50ml
Best for: dry, sensitive skin
Bring tropical scents into your bathroom with this vegan, cruelty free and reef friendly mineral sunscreen. The lightweight lotion will easily blend into your skin to provide you with robust UVA and UVB protection.
The naturally derived zinc oxide contained in the lotion smoothly spreads onto the skin to form a protective barrier against harmful UV rays, leaving you well moisturised. The water resistant formula for up to 80 minutes is deeply nourishing to dry and sensitive skin
R. Danovaro, et al. (2008). Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections
C. A. Downs, et al. (2013). Toxicological effects of the sunscreen UV filter, benzophenone-2, on planulae and in vitro cells of the coral, Stylophora pistillata
C. A. Downs, et al. (2015). Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands
C DiNardo and C.A. Downs (2017). Dermatological and environmental toxicological impact of the sunscreen ingredient oxybenzone/benzophenone-3
E Woods (2018). Impacts of Sunscreens on Coral Reefs