A big concern among ocean scientists and beachgoers is the impact that 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, US Virgin Islands and Aruba, and a proposed federal ban in all US National Marine Sanctuaries containing coral reefs. 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 toxic to fish, corals and other marine life, 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”?
BEWARE! Unfortunately the terms “reef friendly” and “reef safe” are 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 stick with lotions and avoid spray or misting sunscreens, especially those 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:
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”
Or in other words- avoid all chemical based sunscreens and opt for non-nano mineral based sunscreens instead. In addition to concerns about chemical sunscreens negatively impacting coral reefs, the FDA has 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. Learn more here.
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 clothing (can be UPF or even just regular)
Using a more reef friendly sunscreen on exposed areas
Check out REN Clean Screen Mineral Sunscreen for great everyday use, and Manda, Avasol, Raw Elements, and Bare Republic for outdoor adventure and water activity use.
Additionally, during the COVID pandemic, remember to protect yourself and others while at the beach by staying at least 6 feet away from other beachgoers, bringing hand sanitizer, having a mask handy in busy areas, and checking the beach water quality before you go.
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).
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.
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 more great sunscreen options at Beachapedia.org/Reef_Friendly_Sunscreens.