Everything You Need to Know About Reef-Safe Sunscreens

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Putting on sunscreen is the second easiest way to protect your skin from sun damage. (Staying out of the sun is the first, but you have to life your life!) But 2013 and 2016 studies concluded that while SPF safeguards humans from cancer, it’s also deadly for marine life and coral reefs.

Many of the common ingredients found in chemical sunscreens (aka ones that protect skin by transforming the sun’s rays into heat through a chemical reaction) are linked to bleaching and killing coral, infertility in fish, and have even found in the tissues of dolphins. These sunscreens, and their ingredients, are getting into the waterways when they are washed down the drain or you swim in a lake or ocean.

New York City-based Joshua Zeichner, MD has noticed his patients have become interest in reef-safe sun protection.

“Consumers in general are much more knowledgeable now than they were several years ago,” the Director of Cosmetic and Clinical Research at Mount Sinai Hospital says. “Awareness of both environmental and personal well-being is likely what is driving this shift in consumer preferences for sunscreen.”

What is reef-safe sunscreen?

“There is no specific definition for a reef safe sunscreen,” Zeichner says. “Most people consider products to be reef-safe if they do not contain the chemical UV blocking ingredients like octocrylene and octinoxate.”

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How do know if you sunscreen is reef-safe?

Read the label. Focus on what’s listed in the “active ingredients” box, which can usually be found on the back panel. Here’s the list of ingredients to avoid, according to both Zeichner and the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octocrylene
  • Octinoxate
  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Types of Parabens

When should I use reef-safe sunscreen?

Ideally, anytime you’re smoothing on SPF. These formulas are great for every day, not just when you’re at the beach. And anything that’s washed down your drain post-shower will end up in your local waterways.

These are our favorite impossibly smooth, blendable reef-safe formulas.

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Every single one of our editors (seriously) is obsessed with this luminous SPF. It’s slightly tinted to even out skin and has a gleamy, healthy-skin finish. 


Dermatologist Approved

Time Traveler Ageless Daily Face Sunscreen

Solara Suncare


SPF and skincare combine into one.  “This mineral sunscreen also delivers skin repairing ceramides with peptides and antioxidants,” Dr. Zeichner says. “It strengthens the skin and neutralizes free radicals damage while protecting.”



Full Screen Broad Spectrum SPF 30 Clear Finish Sunscreen



This SPF uses reef-friendly ingredients to protect your skin from UVA, UVB, blue light, and pollution.



Countersun Mineral Sunscreen Mist SPF 30

This SPF from clean beauty OG Beautycounter smells like summer. And the spray format makes it so you’ll always get those hard-to-reach places.  



5 in 1 Natural Moisturizing Face Sunscreen SPF 30

Suntegrity Skincare


Tinted moisturizer meets reef-safe mineral sun protection in this smooth lotion that evens skin tone. 


Dermatologist Approved

Sun Bum Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50

“This one only uses zinc oxide to protect,” Zeichner says. But the way it’s formulated means that it skips the major downside of physical SPFs. “It fully rubs into the skin without leaving a white tint behind.”


SPF on the GO

sunbetter SHEER SPF 56 Sunscreen Stick



Small enough to fit in your tiny clutch, but strong enough to protect all day. “The unique texture allows it to be used on the entire body, including the face,” says Zeichner. 

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