Is Reef Safe Sunscreen Legit or Just a Scam?

Your sunscreen may be killing our oceans; specifically the coral reefs! However, some sun protection manufacturers are now producing what you call reef safe sunscreen? Are these so called reef-friendly skin protection products the real deal or are they just a scam to make you feel good about buying their product?

Research is telling us that something we’re all doing is actually killing our oceans! And it has to do with your cheap sunscreen and sunblock products. 

As if climate change isn’t alarming enough, there’s another threat to our biodiverse environments; specifically our oceans.

What if I told you that sunscreen manufacturers are contributing to killing our oceans? The chemical ingredients in sunscreens are detrimentally impacting and harming our ocean coral reefs, sea life and aquatic plants. But, alternative reef safe sunscreen products are just as effective to protect from UV rays but also, are helping to preserve our coral reefs and ocean environments.

It’s because of your everyday UV protection skin products that are supposed to protect us from cancer. They are culprits to the destruction of our ocean coral and barrier reefs.

However, after much pressure from both environmentalists and our federal government, manufacturers are reformulating reef safe sunscreens are just as safe; for humans and our ocean coral reefs!

So, before you hit the beach or go on that salt water adventure, you need to read this!

So, let’s dive in to see why reef safe sunscreen is so important to our oceans and which sunscreens are really reef safe.


Are You Using Reef Safe Sunscreen - Always On Liberty

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Is Reef Safe Sunscreen Just a Scam? 

What is happening to the ocean coral reefs?

Great Barrier Reef - Always On Liberty
Photo By Karen Davis – Getty Images

Coral Reefs are vital to our ocean’s ecosystem. They provide necessary sources of food for fish and other ocean wildlife. Without the many different species of coral, our ocean cannot sustain life. Sadly though, due to global warming and ocean acidification, our living coral reefs are dying at an alarming rate.  

In a 2020 study, the Global Coral Reef Monitoring Network (GCRMN) reports,

“between 2009 and 2018 there was a progressive loss of about 14 per cent of the coral from the world’s coral reefs primarily caused by recurring, large-scale bleaching events. In all, about 11,700 square kilometres of hard coral, which is more than all the coral currently living on Australia’s coral reefs, were lost.”

This is huge considering approximately 25% of marine life and over 4000 species of fish are dependent upon coral reefs at some point throughout their life cycle. (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency EPA)

But this isn’t just about the coral reefs. As we mentioned, it affects all sea life that depends on corals and reefs to live.

Sunscreen Chemicals and Marine Life
Image by NOAA

Now, what is ocean acidification?

In my saga at the Salton Sea in California, I explained the science behind introducing unnatural chemicals to natural environments. This is what happened to Salton Sea. Those chemicals literally suppressed anything living. Well, the same thing is happening with chemicals in the ocean.

Sadly, it’s deeply affecting our ocean and its’ coral reefs. And, what is one of the biggest culprits to this ocean acidification? Keep reading.


How sunscreens affect our oceans?

marine biologist measures bleached coral
Marine biologist measures bleached coral in an underwater field of dying or dead coral – Photo by RainervonBrandis at Getty Images Signature

So, if you guessed sunscreen, you guessed right. Who’d ever think something so simple as a preventative measure against skin cancer plays such a huge factor in threatening our ocean ecosystems?

In 2016, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) released a report, “Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands.”

In a nutshell, the study reports that 6000-14,000 TONS of sunscreen ends up in our oceans EACH YEAR. This puts at least 10% of our world’s coral reefs at risk or exposure and approximately 40% of our coastal coral reefs at risk of exposure.

So, while the chemicals oxybenzone (B-3) and octinoxate are good at blocking UV rays, they are actually toxic endocrine disruptors to aquatic life. When large amounts of sunscreen containing these unnatural elements wash off of your skin into the ocean it disrupts the ecosystem; increasing coral bleaching and causing deformities in fish.

Think about that for a moment. The lotion that we slather on to protect our own health is actually killing our ocean’s health!

♦ Before you head to the coast, read up on our Best Beach Camping Tips and Rules for Coastal Campers


What initiatives are taking place to save our reefs

Save Our Coral Reefs by Using Reef Safe Sunscreen-2

According to Positive Reef Initiative, In 2018, the Hawaii state legislature passed a statewide ban that prohibits the use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Those chemicals are just two of those ‘bleaching events’ stated in that above study. Scientists are finding they are detrimental to local fish and coral reefs.

So now, all businesses and stores in the Hawaiian islands must ensure that none of their sunscreen or sunblock products they sell contain those chemicals.

And now, other travel destinations like Australia, Virgin Islands, and Key West, Florida are joining in the efforts. In places of high concentration of coral reefs, only reef-safe sunscreen is allowed.

But that doesn’t ensure those environmentally-dangerous sun blockers aren’t still being used. Because many people order skin protection products online, they may not even be aware of the mandate or even the dangers they impose on the ocean environment.

Even if they are, some ocean beach goers, surfers and snorkelers seemingly are more concerned about not getting skin cancer instead of our reefs.

And, with that, manufacturers will continue to pump out more environmentally-toxic sunscreen products out of their factories.

That’s precisely why we’re putting this information out there.

Let’s see where the Best Day Cruise Experiences in the U.S. – Sun, Sea & Smiles!


How to verify that your sunscreen is really reef-safe or reef-friendly?

Differentiating between the toxic sunblock versus reef-safe sunscreen all comes down to the active ingredients. But, even the size of minerals can have an impact on our coral reefs as well.

Plain and simple, avoid sunscreen products containing the two common UV blocker chemicals, octinoxate and oxybenzone (B-3). Studies are showing that those chemical ingredients are bleaching coral. In layman’s terms, bleach kills living organisms. Those highly toxic chemicals are contributing to coral reef endangerment and destruction.

Instead, look for ingredients that specifically read ‘non-nano’ or the nanometer size is larger than 100. Opt for mineral sunscreens that use ingredients such as titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide.

If you see sunscreens or sunblock products that have those dangerous ingredients, octinoxate and/or oxybenzone (B-3), on the store shelves, take it up to the manager of the store. Kindly educate them and ask them to remove the product from their inventory.


Which sunscreen brands are NOT reef-safe?

Toxic Sunscreens
Photo credit: Cindy Ellen Russel / Honolulu Star-Advertiser

Unfortunately, most sunscreens on the market are, not only unhealthy for our ocean reefs, but also unsafe for any nature water environment. Those toxic and even lethal chemicals upset the balance of the underwater environments. 

Sunscreens that have the following ingredients are widely believed to be destructive to coral reefs and ocean ecosystems:

      • Oxybenzone
      • Octinoxate
      • Octocrylene
      • Homosalate
      • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
      • Para-aminobenzoic acid
      • Parabens
      • Triclosan
      • Petrolatum
      • High content of Titanium Dioxide
      • 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”

Seriously though, after reading all this, do you really want to be putting those on your or your family’s skin to be absorbed into your bodies anyways?

Some familiar sunscreen brands you should eliminate from your snorkeling gear or beach bag include Banana Boat, Coppertone, and Hawaiian Tropic, just to name a few.

Check out our Beach Camping in the U.S. – Places to Camp by the Water!


Which Sunscreens ARE Reef Safe?

Reef Safe Sunscreen on Beach - Always On Liberty

Before buying any sunscreen that you intend to use at salt water beaches, swimming, surfing, snorkeling or any activity in salt water, read the labels thoroughly.

So here’s a list of reef friendly sunscreens, sunblocks, sticks and sprays. Even so, you should always verify the ingredients before slathering on or spraying. Let’s all be proactive about saving our coral reefs and our oceans.

Reef Safe Sunscreens:

Raw Elements Certified Natural Sunscreen SPF 30+

Raw Elements Face Stick Certified Natural Sunscreen SPF 30+

Green Screen Organic Sunscreen Zinc Oxide SPF 32

Thinksport SPF 50+ Mineral Sunscreen

Kokua Sun Care Natural Zinc Sunscreen SPF 50

Two Peas Organics Sunscreen Lotion SPF 50

Earth Mama Uber-Sensitive Mineral Lotion SPF 40

Badger Baby Sunscreen with Zinc Oxide SPF 30

Badger SPF 40 Unscented Sunscreen Cream

All Good Kid’s Sunscreen Butterstick SPF 50

Babo Botanicals Baby Face Mineral SPF 50

Babo Botanicals SPF 30 Clear Zinc Lotion

MANDA Natural Sunscreen SPF 50

Manda Organic SPF 50 Sun Paste

Reef Safe Sunscreen SPF 30+

All Good Sport Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

Raw Love SPF 35 All-natural Mineral Sunscreen

Suntegrity Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30

Stream2Sea SPF 30 Mineral Sunblock

Olita Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30

Skinnies CONQUER Sungel Sun Cream SPF 50+

Sun Bum Original SPF 50 Sunscreen Lotion

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How we can help protect and sustain our Coral Reefs?

Sunscreen and hat on beach

With a little education (you’re welcome), taking a proactive stance and exercising personal responsibility, we all can help slow the destruction of our coral reefs.

While there’s a lot of other ways to protect and sustain our coral reefs, choosing the right sunscreen is a great start.

    1. Be diligent about reading labels and knowing what ingredients are in the sunscreen and UV sunblocking skin protection products that we buy.
    2. Stop using toxic products we already have that possess ingredients that contribute, even minimally, to the destruction of our world’s coral reefs and ocean ecosystems.
    3. Hold sunscreen manufacturers accountable for ingredients they put into their sunblock products. Vote them off the island by not buying sunscreens or sunblocks with these dangerous bleaching chemicals to their products. 
    4. Sit under a beach umbrella or cabana on the beach. Wear a wide brim sun hat and cover up using UPF clothing instead of slathering or spraying chemicals.
    5. Try to avoid the sun during peak UV hours of 10:00 am to 4:00 pm.
    6. Contact your federal representatives to support the first federal bill to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreens in National Marine Sanctuaries with coral reefs!
    7. Spread the word by sharing this article with your friends and family who use sunscreens and sunblocks.

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Wrapping up

Boys wearing UPF shirts boogie boarding on beach
Photo by BlueOrangeStudio – Canva

The good news, through education and awareness, people are becoming more concerned about the detriments some household products are causing to our environment. 

And, in this case, they are engaging in support of using only reef safe sunscreens, including ourselves. Consumers are becoming label readers. But also, they are denying such product purchases.

And finally, a lot of responsible sunscreen manufacturers are stepping up to join the initiative. They’re making products using only reef-safe ingredients that are safer for the environment. All of our efforts combined will help protect and sustain our great barrier reefs and corals. 

Now let’s learn about How Blue Spaces Can Improve Our Health & Well Being


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