Your Ultimate Guide to Reef Safe Sunscreen
Updated September 8, 2022
Hawaiʻi recently became the first of the United States to pass legislation prohibiting the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common chemical ingredients known to harm coral reefs.
The law, if signed by Gov. David Ige, is slated to go into effect in January of 2021, giving manufacturers and retailers time to transition to reef-safer sunscreen options.
EDITED: On July 3, 2018 Hawaii Governor David Ige signed this bill into law making history and moving toward saving our Hawaiian reefs!
Savvy Hawai’i travelers don’t need to wait to start making a difference. We recently posted a snorkel & scuba guide about the fact that worldwide, coral reefs are in danger and switching to a reef-friendly sunscreen option is one way you can help.
Studies have shown that the two banned chemicals do cause damage to coral reefs. Craig Downs, a scientist whose 2015 peer-reviewed study found oxybenzone was a threat to coral reefs. “Lots of things kill coral reefs, but we know oxybenzone prevents them from coming back.” It also affects sea urchins and kills algae, a source of food for sea turtles, he said.
He found as much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion ends up in coral reefs annually. Other ingredients often found in sunscreen, and after-sun lotions also contain mineral oil or petrolatum products. These are both also implicated in coral death and damage.
“According to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, coral reefs are crucial to marine and human life.
In addition to protecting sea creatures, the Smithsonian said, the reefs provide food, medication and tourism jobs, among other things — at a value of $30 billion to $172 billion per year.
Don’t be fooled by misleading advertising. Many companies will claim that their product is ‘Reef Safe’ when in fact it contains one of the chemicals listed above or mineral oil, another coral reef toxin. Perfect example – Sun Bum promotes their sunscreen as ‘Reef Friendly’ yet the first four ingredients (Avobenzone 3.00%, Homosalate 5.00%, Octisalate 3.00%, Octocrylene 10.00%) are from the list of reef killing chemicals above. Granted it does not contain Oxybenzone or Octinoxate, but the ingredients list leaves me dubious. This is where you, as a consumer must do your due diligence and read the ingredients labels.
Our friends over at EcoWatch have a wonderful post on the ‘Greenwashing’ of sunscreen products. According to their article;
Unfortunately, people also pose the greatest threat to coral reefs,” according to the Smithsonian. “Over-fishing and destructive fishing, pollution, warming, changing ocean chemistry, and invasive species are all taking a huge toll. In some places, reefs have been entirely destroyed, and in many places reefs today are a pale shadow of what they once were.” ” (Washington Post)
Coral reefs occupy less than 1% of the ocean floor, yet are home to more than 25% of the ocean’s marine life.
In an effort to protect Hawaii’s reefs, Hawaiian Airlines last month began offering passengers free samples of natural sunscreens without those ingredients. The airline is also encouraging its passengers to learn more about Hawaii by showing an 11-minute documentary on each flight about the environmental challenges affecting reefs. (CNN)
Did you know Sunscreen chemicals can also be found in your urine within 20 minutes of application, which is why sewage is a leading carrier of these chemicals. So be sunscreen smart wherever you live, to do your part to protect your skin and coral reefs. (EWG)
Here’s what YOU can do when visiting Maui and the surrounding Hawai’ian Islands (and of course anywhere you travel.)
- READ THE LABEL. Look at the ingredients list and avoid buying or using sunscreen and personal products that contain Oxybenzone and octinoxate, avobenzone, avobenzine, octinoxate, ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate, homosalate or oxtisalate/octocrylene.
- Avoid sunscreens containing petrolatum, commonly known as mineral oil, which takes years to biodegrade, and are known to be harmful or fatal to aquatic life and waterfowl.
- Avoid sunscreens with high content of Titanium Dioxide. This mineral does not biodegrade and is found to react in warm seawater to form hydrogen peroxide which is harmful to all sea life.
- Skip the spray on sunscreens that rely on the ingredients listed above. Their spray carries in the wind landing in the ocean nearby and on unsuspecting sunbathers.
- Seek out mineral based sunscreen. Non-nano zinc oxide (zinc oxide is the only single active ingredient that protects against UVA and UVB rays) and low content titanium dioxide are the preferred mineral based sunscreens. (titanium dioxide mineral does not biodegrade and is found to react in warm seawater to form hydrogen peroxide which is harmful to all sea life.
- Be a smart shopper. Many companies and retailers are beginning to make the transition and are selling ‘Reef Safe’ sunscreens, and many can be found in Maui already. If you’re concerned shop online and bring with you on your trip. Otherwise shop the natural food markets of Maui, they carry a large selection.
- Don’t always Trust labels. Many sunscreens claim to be reef safe yet contain toxic chemicals. Essentially the only safe sunscreen is non-nano zinc or non-nano titanium dioxide.
- Ghostest with the mostest. Many don’t like the white that is cast on skin with the use of mineral sunscreens, not to worry, several companies make tinted reef safe sunscreen (see our resource list) that help prevent the ghost-with-the-most look. BUT, if it’s cool for our local surfers, it’s good enough for me! Or do as the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council says and wear your white as a badge of honor, knowing you’re a reef and marine life protector!!
- Wear a rash guard and hat. These provide sun protection and you’ll use less sunscreen.
- Beware of products claiming to be ‘Reef Safe’ yet still have one of the active ingredients listed above (I’m looking at you Alba Botanica, which lists their Coconut Clear Spray SPF 50 as ‘Reef Safe’ yet contains Avobenzone – 3.0%, Homosalate – 15.0%, Octocrylene – 8.0% and Octyl Salicylate – 5.0% plus a whole host of other unpronounceable inactive ingredients. Their mineral sunscreen is reef safe)
- Think Eco-Friendly. Even if you live away for the ocean, keep in mind that the chemicals you wash off your body eventually find their way into the water table and ultimately into the ocean.
TIP- The FDA recommends not using aerosol sprays on children because they are more likely to inhale the product into their lungs.
If you can’t say it, don’t spray it!
TIP- Be sure to inspect the label to make sure the mineral says that it is “NON-NANO.” Although these products may rub on a bit whiter, they do not penetrate the skin, placenta or blood brain barrier. Many brands also make tinted versions!
One other very important thing to also consider is the effect these chemicals have on our bodies. According to the Environmental Working Group’s piece on The Trouble With Ingredients in Sunscreens, many of the chemical sunscreens adversely effect our hormone and endocrine systems. If these chemicals are killing entire ecosystems, what must they be doing to our body?
We know that oxybenzone acts like estrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals and is associated with endometriosis in women. It’s also implicated in relatively high rates of skin allergy.
Here again, you can be your own best advocate as well as ocean hero by reading the list of ingredients. It’s not just the ‘active ingredient’ that you’ll want to be on the look out for, take a look at the Inactive ingredients as well. Many sunscreens have chemical based inactive ingredients. According to the EWG;
‘One ingredient in particular is a cause for concern: methylisothiazolinone, a preservative. This year, EWG has found methylisothiazolinone is listed on the labels of 94 sunscreens including six marketed to children. Methylisothiazolinone is used alone or in mixtures with a related chemical preservative called methylchloroisothiazolinone. Laboratory studies indicate that methylisothiazolinone is a skin sensitizer or allergen. Over the past several years, physicians have reported serious cases of serious skin allergies, most notably in children exposed to methylisothiazolinone, from baby wipes and other products meant to be left on the skin (Chang 2014).
Do we really want this on our skin or in our environment?
On a very personal note, I’ve used sunscreen religiously on my trips to Maui over the last 25 plus years. I’ve used all the name brands containing a plethora of chemical ingredients, and without fail every year I would break out in a ‘sun rash’ if I exposed my skin too long while wearing chemical sunscreens.
Finally, about 5 years ago, I switched to a zinc based natural sunscreen. I bought one made specifically for babies as they have such tender skin, my reasoning was that it had to be better and more gentle than what I could (at the time) find in Maui. I’ve since found several others that I really like.
Here’s a list of truly ‘Reef Safe’ sunscreen companies you can try with some notes about each. In no particular order.
Stream2Sea. Personal favorite, sells a tinted version that I like.
Here’s a list of truly ‘Reef Safe’ sunscreen companies you can try with some notes about each. In no particular order. But the first one listed is our personal favorite. We are not affiliated with and receive no benefit from listing any of the brands below.
Maui Surfer Honey Our all-time favorite. TIP – lightly pre-moisten your skin with coconut oil, then apply Maui Surfer Honey. It helps it go on smoothly and leave less of that ‘ghost’ look that zinc based sunscreens tend to provide. Personally, I don’t feel that this brand leaves much of it all but a little coconut oil really helps!
Stream2Sea. Excellent choice, they also sell a tinted version that I like.
Badger Another well-known and excellent brand.
Babo Botanicals I like their fragrance free version.
Raw Elements A favorite of Maui locals
Raw Love Sunscreen Another favorite of Maui locals
Hawaiian Sol I like their SPF 15, pleasant smell, not too white
Mama KULEANA Made on Maui!
Suntegrity Skin Care produces some tinted sunscreens
Goddess Garden Organic Offers a spray version of their mineral sunscreen.
The Honest Company Offers a spray version of their mineral sunscreen.
Kabana Organic minimal ingredients.
Deter Mineral Reef safe Rated #1 By the Environmental Working Group
Additional reading resources.
Maui Coral Reefs – The Essential ‘Pono’ Guide (pono = do the right thing)
Environmental Working Group’s Sunscreen Guide
Ban Toxic Sunscreens Fact Page
Reefs At Risk Reef Safe Sunscreen Guide
Reefs At Risk The Cover Up Film
Be Reef Safe’s Sunscreen Guide
Looking for more Maui vacation ideas? Lots of things to see and do,