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Your Guide to Reef Friendly Sunscreen! This Summer Choose Minerals Over Chemicals

A big concern among ocean scientists and beachgoers is the impact that chemical sunscreens are having on the marine environment. Decades of research documenting ecotoxicity to coral reefs and other marine life has led to bans on the sale and use of certain chemical sunscreens in states and island communities such as Hawaii, US Virgin Islands and Aruba. The FDA has even recommended removing all chemical sunscreen ingredients from their list of “safe and effective” ingredients due to concerns about human health risks! As such, there has 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 chemicals that are toxic to fish, corals and other marine life, such as oxybenzone, avobenzone and octocrylene, sunscreen manufacturers have started promoting “reef safe” and “reef friendly” products. While some of these products truly are more reef friendly than others, many are not! Don’t be fooled by creative marketing. Read below to learn how to tell the difference and ensure that you’re truly using a more reef friendly sunscreen. 

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

Just look at the ingredients label. A reef friendly sunscreen will only contain the minerals zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as active ingredients. If there’s a chemical listed, then it’s not reef friendly- it’s as easy as that. Please note that the terms “reef friendly” and “reef safe” are not regulated, so you can’t just 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 stick with lotions, or just avoid spray or misting sunscreens that contain titanium dioxide as it may be harmful 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 wood or cardboard.

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

  • Avobenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Oxybenzone
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Microplastics, such as “exfoliating beads”
  • Nanoparticles 
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan

In other words- avoid chemical based sunscreens and opt for non-nano mineral based sunscreens instead. In addition to concerns about chemical sunscreens negatively impacting coral reefs and other marine animals, the FDA recently proposed removing all over the counter chemical sunscreen ingredients (including avobenzone, octisalate, homosalate and more) due to the potential for adverse human health impacts during use.

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, when possible (10 am – 2 pm)
  • Covering up- Wear hats, sun-shirts and other cover ups 
  • Using a more reef friendly sunscreen on exposed areas

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 truly “reef friendly” sunscreen products, and encourage them to stop the sale of harmful products. Please feel free to share this handout with local businesses and community members!

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. 

Stay informed

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

To learn more about “reef friendly” sunscreens and the negative impacts of chemical-based sunscreens, and to get a list of some more great sunscreen options, visit

Your Guide To Reef Friendly Sunscreens