The Best Reef-safe Sunscreens, According to Experts

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Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Photo: Courtesy of Amazon, Sephora, Black Girl Sunscreen

While traditional sunscreens contain ocean-damaging chemicals, reef-friendly products allow us to soak up rays without harming the precious marine environments we're out to enjoy. As we learn more about the effects of some chemicals on marine life, many popular destinations, including the U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii, have even banned specific ingredients that harm coral reefs and other ocean species. There are plenty of eco-conscious sunblock options that provide proper protection without violating these bans or sacrificing your skin's comfort.

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration is working on outlining official cut-and-dry rules on what qualifies as reef-safe. This means any "reef-safe" or "reef-friendly" label claims are primarily used by companies as a marketing tactic, and are usually applied to products free from the two main chemicals known to harm marine life: oxybenzone and octinoxate. So keep your eyes peeled for these ingredients in any products that claim to be reef-friendly.

If you're looking for a cheatsheet, we've rounded up the best reef-safe sunscreens for protecting your skin and the marine environment, whether you're on the beach or at home. (Reef-safety goes beyond your days on the shore — skincare products go down the drain after you wash them off.) After consulting a dermatologist and a professional surfer, Thinksport SPF 50+ Mineral Sunscreen is our first pick for sun protection. But if you want the best reef-safe spray, stick, or sensitive skin formula, we found expert-approved options for those too.

These are the best reef-friendly sunscreens for your outdoor adventures.

T+L's Top Picks

Best Overall: Thinksport SPF 50+ Mineral Sunscreen

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at Walmart and Target

Why We Love It: It's sweat-resistant enough to use for sports and comfortable enough to wear every day.

What to Consider: It may leave a slight white cast on darker skin.

Thinksport SPF 50+ Mineral Sunscreen checks every box on our reef-friendly checklist, and it's perfect for numerous outdoor activities and occasions. The broad spectrum cream uses non-nano zinc oxide to create a protective layer against UVA and UVA rays. If you're one of those people who hates the feeling of being slathered in gooey sunblock, Thinksport could be a game-changer. The lightweight formula goes on smoothly, and it disappears quickly with zero-to-minimum white cast and greasy residue. It's water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, so it's the perfect beach companion whether you'll be sipping piña coladas in a cabana or sweating through a hardcore wave-riding session. The gentle, non-irritating formula makes it a good choice for wearing everyday (yes, you should be wearing sunscreen every single day) on your face or body as well, even for sensitive skin types. A bonus? It's also vegan.

Price at time of publish: $19

SPF: 50| Size: 6 ounces | Water resistance: Up to 80 minutes

Best for Everyday Use: La Roche-Posay Anthelios Gentle Mineral Sunscreen

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at CVS and Walgreens

Why We Love It: It contains antioxidants to combat free radicals.

What to Consider: The label does not specify non-nano ingredients.

Los Angeles-based dermatologist Dr. Jasmine Yun wears reef-safe sunscreen every day and recommends getting into the habit of always applying a thin layer of sun protection on any exposed areas, especially the face. Her pick for daily use is La Roche-Posay Anthelios Gentle Mineral Sunscreen. "Because reef-safe sunscreens do not use chemical UV blockers, they are super safe for the face and body," she says. "I have peace of mind when I wash my face at night, knowing the water going down the drain is safe for ocean life."

The oil-free formula uses 100 percent mineral UV blockers of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, and uses silica powder to combat shiny residue. Note that La Roche-Posay does not use "reef-safe" marketing terms, nor does it specify whether its main ingredients are non-nano. The company does state that it lab tests each of its face and body sunscreens to ensure they are marine safe.

Price at time of publish: $25

SPF: 50 | Size: 3 ounces | Water resistance: Up to 80 minutes

Best Mineral: Badger Active Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at Walmart and Badger

Why We Love It: This mineral sunscreen is made from just five ingredients.

What to Consider: It needs to be reapplied after only 40 minutes of water contact.

Badger Active Mineral Sunscreen has an SPF 30 rating and protects against broad spectrum UV exposure. Scan the ingredients lists on this product and you'll only find organic sunflower oil, organic beeswax, uncoated zinc oxide, sea buckthorn extract, and sunflower vitamin E. Badger sunscreens are also one of the few brands that take the extra step to have its products run through lab tests to verify the absence of all harmful chemicals on the HEL list, earning this product a certification seal from Land + Sea that assures consumers it's free from environmental pollutants. The product is also vegan, cruelty-free, non-GMO, made with solar power, and packaged in 50 percent recyclable materials. The main downside is that it's only water and sweat resistant for up to 40 minutes, whereas other sunscreens on this list last for 80 minutes.

Price at time of publish: $18

SPF: 30 | Size: 2.9 ounces | Water resistance: Up to 40 minutes

Best Spray: Alba Botanica Hawaiian Coconut Clear Spray SPF 50

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at Target and Walmart

Why We Love It: The tropical scent smells like a dream vacation.

What to Consider: It contains avobenzone, which may react harmfully to chlorine.

This Alba Botanica mineral sunscreen spray is a favorite for its tropical scent and easy spray-on application. It's an ideal buy for beach-goers who like to take dips in the ocean and don't want to fuss with sandy applications (or reapplications) of sunscreen throughout the day. It also comes in clutch for boating trips or relaxing water activities like river tubing when you don't want to fuss with applying creams or sticks and need protection on hard-to-reach areas. Some shoppers may choose to skip this biodegradable sunscreen if they plan to head to the pool, however, as it contains avobenzone, an ingredient that had a concerning reaction to chlorine in one study. It also contains a few other chemicals some beach-goers try to avoid, namely homosalate and octocrylene.

Price at time of publish: $10

SPF: 50 | Size: 6 ounces | Water resistance: Up to 80 minutes

Related: The Best Sun-protective Clothing for Women

Best Stick: Bare Republic Mineral Funscreen Sticks

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at Walmart

Why We Love It: It gives your sun protection a fun flare.

What to Consider: The bright, bold colors will leave marks on fabrics.

We love these fun and colorful mineral-based sunscreen sticks from Bare Republic. This revival of the color-blocked zinc sunscreen noses from the '80s turns protecting your skin and the ocean into a form of expression. You can buy these zinc oxide sticks separately, but snagging three at a time means you can get creative. These are ideal for making a statement at the beach, poolside, or at a festival — or to coax your kids into wearing sun protection without a fight. But keep in mind that people who touch their face often may smudge their designs, and colors can transfer to fabrics.

Price at time of publish: $20

SPF: 50 | Size: .3 ounces per stick | Water resistance: Up to 80 minutes

Best for Dark Skin: Black Girl Sunscreen SPF 30

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Black Girl Sunscreen

Also available at ULTA and Target

Why We Love It: It doubles as a daily moisturizer.

What to Consider: It is not considered reef-safe in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Black Girl Sunscreen is a Black-owned brand that offers daily SPF 30 protection specifically designed for use on darker skin colors. This sunscreen is vegan and cruelty-free and contains natural moisturizers such as jojoba, avocado, and sunflower oils. The ultra-sheer formula dries clear with no residual white cast and is ideal for wearing under makeup. Free from oxybenzone and octinoxate, it meets basic non-regulated guidelines for being reef-friendly. However, this sunscreen is not compliant with the U.S. Virgin Islands reef-safe policy since it contains octocrylene.

Price at time of publish: $19

SPF: 30 | Size: 3 ounces | Water resistance: Up to 80 minutes

Related: The Most Comfortable Sandals for Women

Best Tinted for Light to Medium Skin: Supergoop! Mattescreen 100% Mineral Sunscreen

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Sephora

Also available at Supergoop!

Why We Love It: It minimizes pores for a more flawless look.

What to Consider: Tint can transfer to clothing, bedding, or towels.

Not only does this sunscreen provide UVA and UVB protection, Supergoop! Mattescreen 100% Mineral Sunscreen also works to block blue light emitted from electronics. The product's translucent tint helps hide the dreaded white cast created by some mineral-based sunscreens and works on a wide range of light to medium skin tones. As a professional surfer in the World Surf League, Kirra Seale says applying Mattescreen is part of her daily reef-safe sun protection routine. The oil-free formula functions as a primer, pore-minimizer, and sunscreen all-in-one. "I put it on first thing in the morning before I leave the house," she says. "It has a light sheen and leaves my face looking smooth."

Price at time of publish: $38

SPF: 40 | Size: 1.5 ounces | Water resistance: Up to 80 minutes

Best Vegan: Sun Bum Original Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at Walmart and Target

Why We Love It: The vegan formula is hypoallergenic and not tested on animals.

What to Consider: Active ingredients include octocrylene, a chemical that is banned in the U.S. Virgin islands.

"I use Sun Bum in SPF 50 lotion for my body whenever I go surfing and when competing in events like the WSL Longboard Tour," professional athlete Kirra Seale says. "Having sunscreens that are reliable in different parts of the world where the UV rays can be more intense is crucial." Sun Bum Original Sunscreen Lotion uses a vegan, cruelty-free formula that is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. It's an ideal choice for anyone looking for a vegan sunscreen that offers the highest possible approved SPF protection and longest water-resistancy. While this product is free of oxybenzone and octinoxate and labeled reef-friendly, it contains octocrylene, an ingredient that is banned in the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Price at time of publish: $16

SPF: 50 | Size: 6 ounces | Water resistance: Up to 80 minutes

Best for Sensitive Skin: California Baby Face Super Sensitive SPF 30

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at California Baby

Why We Love It: It's free from common allergens such as gluten, soy, oats, and most nuts.

What to Consider: The new formula is no longer fragrance-free.

This vegan, marine-friendly sunscreen is made without common allergens, including dairy, gluten, soy, and oats, making it our top pick for adults, kids, and babies with sensitive skin. "I bring loads of it in my luggage on vacation to be prepared to slather it on my three kids," says Dr. Yun. The mineral-based formula uses titanium dioxide as a barrier sunblocker, and is free from oxybenzone and octinoxate. It's also made without chemicals of concern such as avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, and homosalate. Originally produced as fragrance-free, this product is now scented with gardenia and lemongrass essential oils. Although it's not listed on the label, the company claims this product is "coral reef-safe."

SPF: 30+| Size: 2.9 ounces | Water resistance: Up to 80 minutes

Price at time of publish: $27

Related: Best Inflatable Pool Floats

Best Splurge: Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protector Lotion SPF 50

Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Courtesy of Amazon

Also available at Sephora and Shiseido

Why We Love It: It has a dual wetforce and heatforce shield.

What to Consider: This sunscreen works best when exposed to water or heat.

"I love using the Shiseido Ultimate Sun Protector Lotion," says surfer Kirra Seale. "Their formula is ocean-friendly and Hawaii-compliant. It rubs on so silky and smooth and the water-resistant veil means less product washes off when you enter the ocean." This sunscreen is formulated to increase the invisible barrier protection when exposed to external heat and water or sweat, making it ideal for very sunny days spent in the waves. Still, buyers should be aware that, while free from oxybenzone and octinoxate, this product does contain avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene.

Price at time of publish: $40

SPF: 50+ | Size: 5 ounces | Water resistance: Up to 80 minutes

Tips for Buying Reef-safe Sunscreen

Consider active and inactive ingredients

As there are no official reef-safe designations (more on that below), you'll want to check the label's active and in-active ingredients to make sure they are free from known chemicals and particles that harm the environment. Remember that being labeled "organic" does not mean a product is reef-friendly. If buying organic is important to you, be sure to check for an official certification seal somewhere on the product label in addition to checking the ingredients lists for harmful substances.

Read product descriptions carefully

Sunscreens that claim to be reef-friendly and absorb into your skin should be carefully scrutinized. Products that work by fully absorbing into the skin often contain nanoparticles that are harmful to ocean life. Likewise, if your sunscreen claims to do double-duty as an exfoliant or create a shimmer effect, it may contain nanoplastics, which are harmful to the marine environment.

Choose a type of sunscreen that fits your needs

There are many different varieties of sunscreen, and choosing the right one for your UV protection is an important part of the selection process. Sunscreen creams and sticks that are ideal for snorkeling trips or watersports aren't going to give the same lightweight feeling or barely-there look you'll want to seek out in an everyday sunscreen for your face. A few things to consider when choosing the right type of sunscreen for your needs are method of application, SPF level, length of water-resistance, portability, and appearance after application.

Frequently Asked Questions

What makes sunscreen reef-safe?

Generally speaking, reef-safe sunscreens are considered to be free from chemicals and nanoparticles that are known as harmful to ocean and coral reef environments. Currently, there are no set rules or requirements needed for a sunscreen brand to label a product as reef-safe (but the FDA is working on it). Reef-safe labeling is primarily used by brands as a marketing term. As a non-official baseline, products that are claimed to be ocean-friendly tend to be free from oxybenzone and octinoxate. Brands are beginning to replace "reef-safe" with "reef-friendly" in order to offer a more accurate description of their products.

Which sunscreen ingredients are not reef-safe?

Sunscreens ingredients widely believed to be harmful to coral reef systems include oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, homosalate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, para-aminobenzoic acid, parabens, and triclosan. Buyers should also be on the lookout for sunscreens that contain nanoparticles or do not specify the use of "non-nano" or "micro-sized" zinc or titanium. Nanoparticles are often found in sunscreens that absorb into the skin versus creating a UV barrier or filter that rests on top of the skin.

Why Trust Travel + Leisure

For this article, Katherine Alex Beaven researched and tested dozens of reef-friendly sunscreens, consulted with a dermatologist, and spoke to a professional surfer to see which products make the cut to keep you — and the ocean — protected on sunny days.

Up Next: The Best Packable Sun Hats of 2022

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