05 • 28 • 2020

Reef Friendly Sunscreens

By Surfrider Foundation

June 1st is World Reef Awareness Day — a day to reflect on the delicate ecosystem that is our ocean's coral reefs. This day brings together leaders around the world to create active change through education and engagement. With this in mind, we'd like to share one action we can all take to help protect our coral reefs: opt for reef friendly sunscreens.

Coral reefs are integral to the health of our ocean. Reefs are the most biodiverse ecosystem on the planet, and support thousands of marine species by providing essential habitat, nurseries, breeding grounds, feeding grounds and more. Reefs also provide enormous economic and recreation benefits to nations across the world. Coral reef ecosystems support commercial fisheries, protect beaches and coastal developments from erosion, and even provide amazing protection from high wave events by dissipating an estimated 90 percent of wave energy. When it comes to human health, millions of people rely on coral reef fish for sustenance, and scientists are increasingly looking to reefs as potenital sources of medicine.

However, our reefs are at risk. NOAA estimates that over 75% of the world's reefs are already threatened, and in just 10 years, 90% of reefs will be threatened from human activities. Threats to reefs range from the global scale- such as warming waters, marine heat waves, coastal storms, and ocean acidification; to local level from stormwater and fertilizer runoff, sewage spills, physical damage (eg. from boat anchors), and pollution. Some of threats will take global cooperation to address, but many of them are local, which means we can each provide an immediate benefit to help increase the health and resilience of our local or downstream reefs, so they can better handle stressors from a changing climate.

One step we can all take is to switch to products that don't contain known reef-harming chemicals, especially products that come in direct contact with reefs and our marine environment, like sunscreen. Over the past couple years, ocean scientists, stewards, and beachgoers have discovered the negative impact that certain chemical sunscreens are having on the marine environment. This has led to bans on the sale and use of chemical sunscreens in states and island communities such as Hawaii, Key West, US Virgin Islands and Aruba, and a proposed federal ban in all US National Marine Sanctuaries containing coral reefs. There has also been a surge in the production of “reef friendly” sunscreens – but what does that actually mean, and how safe are these alternative sunscreens to the marine environment?

As an alternative to sunscreen made with toxic chemicals, mineral-based sunscreen is often used as a “reef friendly” option. While mineral-based sunscreens are better for the marine environment than sunscreens with toxic chemicals, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene, there are still risks associated with their use. The most common active ingredients in mineral sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

How do I know if a sunscreen is “reef friendly”?

Unfortunately the term “reef friendly” is not regulated, so you can’t always trust products with this description. It's important to actually check the “active ingredients” label on the back of your sunscreen or personal care product to ensure that reef-harming chemicals are not included. The size of minerals can also have an impact. Be sure to use micro-sized (or non-nano) mineral sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles, as these smaller particles can be toxic in high concentrations.

It’s also advised to avoid spray or misting sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide as it can be harmful to your health if inhaled. Finally, it's always good to use products that cut back on single use plastic packaging, either by using containers that are reusable, have high recycled content or are made out of minimally processed plant-based materials like cardboard.

Check the label! Make sure your sunscreen does not contain the following harmful substances on the HEL list:

  • Oxybenzone

  • Octinoxate

  • Octocrylene

  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor

  • PABA

  • Parabens

  • Triclosan

  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium (if it doesn’t explicitly say “micro-sized” or “non-nano” and it can rub in, it’s probably nano-sized)

  • Any form of microplastic, such as “exfoliating beads”

How else can I protect myself from the sun, and our coasts from harmful, chemical sunscreen?

Use sun management

Even mineral-based sunscreens can negatively impact fish and coral reefs at high concentrations. The best thing we can do is limit products when recreating in high use areas. Effective sun protection methods include a balance of:

  • Avoiding sun exposure during peak sun hours (10 am – 2 pm)

  • Covering up- Wear hats and longsleeves

  • Using a more reef friendly sunscreen on exposed areas (e.g. REN's Clean Screen sunscreen is a great option)

Spread the word and advocate for bans on reef harming sunscreens

In addition to changing our actions and purchasing decisions to protect the marine environment, it’s also important to spread awareness about the issue to friends, family and community members. At the local level, ensure that your town’s stores are offering “reef friendly” sunscreen products, and encourage them to stop the sale of harmful products. Feel free to share this handout with local businesses and members of your community.

You can also advocate for local legislation that bans the sale and use of toxic sunscreens. For instance, in 2018, Hawaii passed the first ever statewide ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreens, soon after, island nations including Palau, Bonaire and Aruba followed suite. Due to widespread community support, the Florida Keys were also able to pass an oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreen ban in Key West, but chemical companies have been working tirelessly to try and revoke this important legislation through the use of statewide preemption- learn more here.

Here is a helpful graphic from our friends at NOAA, which shows the interaction between sunscreen chemicals and marine life:

Learn more about “reef friendly” sunscreens, the negative impacts of chemical-based sunscreens and get a list of some great sunscreen options at