Keeping Our Reefs Safe: Choosing Reef-Friendly Sunscreens

Keeping Our Reefs Safe Choosing Reef-Friendly Sunscreens

As lovers of the ocean and its wonders, we want to protect the coral reefs that bring vibrant life to our seas. Recent research, however, shows that some common ingredients in sunscreen can damage these delicate ecosystems. By choosing reef-safe sunscreens, we can still enjoy the sun while being good stewards of the environment.

The Rising Popularity of Sunscreen

Sunscreen has become an essential item for most of us. With the growing awareness around preventing skin cancer and protecting our skin from sun damage, sunscreen use has skyrocketed worldwide. Studies estimate over 30% of the Western population uses sunscreen regularly. As more people slather on sunscreen to hit the beach, questions arise on how the chemicals in these products impact ocean life.

The Problem with Oxybenzone and Octinoxate

For years, oxybenzone and octinoxate were popular active ingredients in major sunscreen brands. These UV filters effectively absorb ultraviolet light and help prevent sunburn. However, researchers discovered oxybenzone and octinoxate have toxic effects on coral reefs. Even small amounts can damage the DNA of coral and deform or kill tiny organisms. Scientists have measured elevated concentrations of these chemicals in waters near reefs, showing sunscreen pollution as a real threat.

Hawaii Leads the Way

In 2018, Hawaii made history by banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. This landmark legislation aims to protect Hawaii’s sensitive coral reefs that are integral to its marine ecosystems. Hawaii’s beaches also attract millions of tourists who swim and snorkel amongst the reefs each year. Education programs teach visitors about reef-safe products and safe sun habits. Conservationists hope Hawaii inspires change across the world.

How Sunscreens Harm Reefs

Oxybenzone, octinoxate, and other chemical filters are phototoxic to coral and marine life. This means when exposed to sunlight, the chemicals become dangerous toxins. Even in tiny amounts measured in parts per trillion, these sunscreen ingredients can:

Damage Coral DNA

The toxins damage coral’s genetic material and prevent reproduction and growth. Coral bleaching increases as the reefs become more diseased.

Disrupt Reproduction

Young coral, fish, and other reef species get trapped in deformities when sunscreen alters their cellular development. This leaves them unable to reproduce correctly.

Act as Endocrine Disruptors

By mimicking hormones, sunscreen chemicals confuse gender expression and reproductive systems in marine life. Critical population balance in reef communities gets disrupted.

Cause Coral Bleaching

Bleached coral loses its primary food source and turns ghostly white. It becomes more susceptible to deadly diseases. Severe bleaching events can destroy reefs.

Switching to Mineral Sunscreens

The good news is practical and eco-friendly alternatives exist. Sunscreen products containing mineral filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide provide Broad spectrum protection without harming coral reefs. Unlike chemical ingredients, minerals sit on the skin to deflect and block the sun’s rays. They do not penetrate the skin or enter the bloodstream.

Brands like Badger, Manda Organic Sun Paste, Raw Elements, and Sun Bum offer mineral sunscreens with clean ingredients. Look for formulas with non-nano or micro-sized particles, which reduce potential impacts. Avoid oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and octocrylene. Read labels carefully and research brands to find reef-safe options you can trust.

More Reef-Friendly Practices

While mineral sunscreen helps, we can take other steps to protect fragile coral environments:

  • Apply sunscreen after getting in the water to avoid washing it off directly onto reefs.
  • Cover up with rashguards, hats, etc., to reduce the use of chemicals.
  • Look for biodegradable “reef-safe” labels when buying sun care products.
  • Minimize use by seeking shade under umbrellas, trees, etc.
  • Follow the rules and don’t touch, stand on, or anchor boats over reefs.
  • Support organizations promoting reef conservation and education.

Eco-Friendly Means Health-Friendly

Safer sunscreens not only help coral but benefit our health. Chemical filters like oxybenzone get absorbed into the skin and bloodstream. Scientists find links between chemical sunscreen ingredients and hormone disruption, infertility, endometriosis, low sperm count, allergies, and other problems.

Switching to mineral sunscreens avoids these risks. You get powerful sun protection with ingredients that won’t penetrate or harm the body. Eco-friendly sunscreens are health-friendly too!

Time to Make the Shift

Demand for ocean-friendly products grows as consumers learn how sunscreen impacts reef health. Retailers like CVS and Amazon have committed to stop selling sunscreens with reef-toxic chemicals. And more locations will likely restrict these ingredients’ use near sensitive marine environments. We can protect our skin, health, and delicate ocean reefs by shifting to mineral sun care alternatives. Vote with your dollars and make the reef-safe switch today.


Our coral reefs support incredible ocean biodiversity, providing many species with food, shelter, and nurseries. These sensitive ecosystems face growing threats, including climate change, pollution, and overfishing. Evidence now shows certain sunscreen chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate also inflict damage when introduced to reef environments. By selecting eco-friendly mineral sunscreens instead of chemical formulas, we can prevent further stress on coral reefs while keeping our skin protected. With small mindful shifts by individuals and more significant policy changes from governments, we can come together to preserve the dazzling beauty and ecological richness of our world’s reefs.


Q: Which sunscreen chemicals are toxic to coral reefs?

A: Oxybenzone and octinoxate are the two primary chemical filters toxic to coral and reef environments. Octocrylene and octisalate also pose threats.

Q: How do mineral sunscreens protect reefs?

A: Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These natural minerals sit on top of the skin rather than being absorbed like chemicals. They provide sun protection without harming marine life when swimming.

Q: Can I still use chemical sunscreens if I avoid beaches?

A: Yes, chemical sunscreens are safer if you have no contact with the ocean and reefs. But mineral options are still recommended since chemicals get absorbed into your bloodstream.

Q: Do eco-friendly sunscreens work as well as chemicals?

A: Yes, mineral sunscreens effectively protect the skin when used correctly. Look for formulas with non-nano particles to ensure Broad spectrum coverage. Take care to apply thickly and reapply sufficiently.

Q: Are all “reef-safe” sunscreens safe?

A: Unfortunately, no. Some brands can mislead with false claims. Check labels for oxybenzone and octinoxate. Research companies to confirm mineral formulas. It’s wise to avoid brands lacking transparency.