What Is Reef Safe Sunscreen? A Complete Guide to Natural Sunscreens

ariel view image of people snorkeling over a coral reef

Protect your skin and the ocean with reef-safe sunscreen. Discover common chemicals that bleach coral and natural products to choose instead.

Estimated Read Time: 7 minutes

Wearing sunscreen is a must for sun safety, but what about the safety of our oceans and coral reefs?

The National Park Service estimates that up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas every year and research shows that the chemicals in these sunscreens are damaging the health of the coral, causing bleaching and harm to marine life.

That’s where reef-safe sunscreen comes in: SPF formulas that avoid harsh chemicals and instead use natural ingredients that are safer for the ocean and human health.

Since it’s World Ocean’s Day on June 8th, we thought what better way to celebrate than to dive right into reef-safe sunscreen. In this guide, we share everything you need to know about picking the right sunscreen, some options to choose from, and extra reef-safe tips, so you’re prepped and ready for your next dip in the sea!

What Does Reef-Safe Sunscreen Mean?

close up of colorful coral reef

Photo by QUI NGUYEN on Unsplash

The terms ‘reef-safe sunscreen’ or ‘reef-friendly sunscreen’ are used to describe sunscreens that avoid common chemical ingredients, usually oxybenzone and octinoxate, that have been found to harm coral reefs.

These two UV-blocking chemicals cause coral bleaching which, as it sounds, is when the corals turn to a dull white. It indicates the coral is under stress and prone to disease or even death, and for this reason, they’ve been banned in Hawaii, Florida, and other parts of the world.

Simply put, to keep corals happy and healthy, we need to protect their vibrant colors. But here’s where it gets a bit more complicated.

To date, there’s no agreed-upon definition of ‘reef safe’, and the term is not regulated by the FDA or any other established organization, so really any brand is free to use it on their packaging.

Although it’s commonly given to any sunscreen that’s free of oxybenzone and octinoxate, other, less studied, chemicals can be potential trouble-makers when they reach coral reefs.

The paraben Butylparaben, for example, has been suggested to cause coral reef bleaching, and there’s still much to be learned about different chemical fragrances and preservatives.

The importance of wearing sunscreen also makes scrutinizing it a sensitive topic as you don’t want to deter anyone from wearing the sunscreen they own, can afford, or have access to. In 2018, the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology published a paper stating that more research is required to fully understand the impact of sunscreens on coral and the most important thing is for people to take the precautions they can to protect themselves from the sun's UV rays.


  • Reef-safe sunscreen is a term given to sunscreens that avoid ingredients that have been found to harm coral reefs, comminly oxybenzone and octinoxate, and the Butylparaben.
  • More research needs to be done into reef-safe ingredients.

Is Mineral Sunscreen Reef Safe?

Alongside ‘reef-safe’, you’ll have probably also seen the terms ‘chemical’ and ‘mineral’ floating around the sunscreen shelves at the drug store.

Chemical sunscreens, with ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate, absorb some of the sun’s UVA and UVB rays and convert them into other forms of energy like heat. Mineral sunscreens, however, act as a natural barrier between you and the sun, with ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium which reflect and scatter UVA and UVB rays away from the skin.

Mineral sunscreens are usually reef-safe as they contain only mineral UV-blocking ingredients which, according to the National Park Service, are not associated with coral bleaching. Just check the label to make sure it’s ‘non-nano’, which means the particles in the sunscreen are larger than 100 nanometers and therefore too large to be ingested by coral.


  • Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays, and mineral sunscreens deflect and scatter them.
  • Mineral sunscreens that are ‘non-nano’ are usually reef safe options.

How Do I Know If A Sunscreen Is Reef-Friendly?

We know finding the right option can be time-consuming, so to make it simple we’ve created this quick checklist you can use when shopping for a reef-safe sunscreen:

✖️Does it have oxybenzone or octinoxate in the ingredients?

  • ✅ Is it a mineral sunscreen?
  • ✅ Is it labeled ‘non-nano’?
  • ✅ Is it labeled ‘paraben-free’?

Other things you can check:

  • ✅ Is it water resistant? (so as little as possible washes off into the ocean)
  • ✅ Is it in an easy-to-apply lotion or stick formula? (so you don’t end up spraying it all over the sand!)

Reef-Safe Sunscreen Options For Every Skin Type & Preference

Here’s a curated a list of our 6 favorites at Zero Waste Store. Pick the best option for your skin type and preferences, and make sure to apply and re-apply when you’re basking in the sun’s rays.


1. Sensitive Skin?

Try Circular Bodies’ Unscented Natural Sun Cream - SPF 30

Made with a combination of natural SPF ingredients and nourishing oils, this moisturizing formula is safe for children and sensitive skin.

"One of the best products I have ever tried. I have extremely dry and sensitive skin and this is a lifesaver while adding SPF protection. a little goes a LONG way."

- Riley Mckeown, Verified Customer

2. Skincare Buff?

Try Sun Mlyk Day Cream With SPF 20

As well as non-nano zinc oxide for sun protection, The Sun Mylk Day Cream contains skincare superheroes hyaluronic acid and Niacinamide for deep hydration and an even skin tone.


3. Makeup Wearer?

Try Eclipse’s Sheer Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

A weightless SPF designed to keep pores unclogged, use this Sheer Mineral SPF for daily application alone or under makeup.

"I use this daily and have a history of acne-prone skin. It is seriously impressive how non-greasy, sheer, makeup-compatible, and easily absorbed this product is considering it is zinc-based and sulfate-free."

- Claire, Verified Customer

4. Want Easy Application?

Try UTU’s Tinted Moisturising Sunscreen Stick SPF 50

Formulated with hydrating ingredients like organic jojoba and coconut oils and vitamin E, the Moisturising Tinted Sunscreen Stick has a balmy texture that makes it effortless to apply.


5. Sports Lover?

Try Badger’s Clear Zinc Mineral Sunscreen SPF 40

With just 4 all-natural and non-toxic ingredients, the Clear Zinc Sport Sunscreen Tin offers water-resistant technology for a day of sweating in the sun.

"This is my favorite eco-friendly sunscreen. It doesn't leave your skin all white and dry. It goes on easily and is very protective. It doesn't feel sticky, but nice and smooth. It also lasts such a long time!"

- Shlyn, Verified Customer

6. Need Pocket-Sized?

Try All Good’s Zinc Sun Butter SPF

The reef-friendly sunscreen comes in a handy reusable and recyclable metal tin that you can slip into your pocket to take with you on your outdoor adventures.


Any Sunscreen Is Better Than No Sunscreen!

Reef-safe, mineral, chemical, paraben-free, water-resistant, lotion, cream, spray… there are so many options when it comes to sunscreen!

We hope this guide has made it easy to find a reef-safe and natural option that works for you, but remember the most important thing is that you use a sunscreen. It’s the golden rule for enjoying golden summer days.

You can take other sun-safe and reef-safe precautions too, like wearing sun-protective clothing such as a hat, rash vest, and beach cover-up, checking the UV index, and seeking shade. Enjoy!

Heading to the beach this summer? Pack your reef-safe sunscreen and check out more tips for an ocean-friendly beach day in this blog.

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