Various Tropical Fish Swimming among Corals

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Reef Safe Sunscreen Can Be Confusing

Over the last few years, concern over the harmful effects of sunscreen on the health of coral and marine life has grown. This has led many tropical destinations to ban certain sunscreens to help mitigate the impact on a precious resource. And this has made it hard for travelers to navigate the sunscreen requirements. What is banned? Where is it prohibited? How do you protect your skin? Are the other options adequate? What does Hawaii consider to be a reef-safe sunscreen? What does the USVI consider to be a reef-safe sunscreen?

A Woman Applying Sunscreen on Arm

When preparing for a trip to St. John, these questions popped up for me. Here is what I learned.

What Destinations Require “Reef-Safe” Sunscreen

The most notable change in the law happened in 2021 when Hawaii banned certain sunscreen chemicals. But this was not the only, nor the first, destination to do this. These include parts of Mexico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, Bonaire, Key West, and Palau. The USVI law went into effect in 2020; this law differs slightly from the Hawaii law in that it bans the “3 Toxic O’s” of oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene. That is one more ingredient than the Hawaii law.

So What Exactly Are Reef-Safe Sunscreens?

“Reef-Safe” and “Reef-Friendly” generally mean sunscreens that do not include both oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common UV-blocking chemicals. These two chemicals have been shown in studies to be harmful to coral by bleaching it. Bleached coral is still alive; it is just under severe stress, which could lead to disease and, ultimately, death for the coral.

The National Park Service estimates that over 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter the water around coral reefs yearly. And sunscreen is by no means the only threat to the health of the reefs; climate change and pollution are two additional significant threats.

A NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) study in 2016 found that these chemicals used in over 3,500 skincare products are entering the water directly from swimmers and through wastewater as a result of bathing. The study showed four significant toxic effects in early-developing coral:

  • Increased susceptibility to bleaching
  • DNA damage
  • Abnormal skeleton growth
  • Gross deformities of baby coral

A non-reef concern is that chemical sunscreens can be absorbed into the skin. And there is some evidence that this can be harmful over time. Although the FDA has not cautioned against these chemicals, the benefits of sunscreen far outweigh the concerns.

Orange Parasol
So What Does One Do To Avoid the Toxic O’s?

After researching this for an upcoming trip, I needed clarification. Can you replace the chemical sunscreen with an equally effective mineral sunscreen? The answer is yes and no. The mineral sunscreens did not perform as well as the chemical options in tests, but they were still effective.

The best way to protect your skin and the coral reef is to combine several sun protection methods:

Choose a non-nano, mineral-based formula. Sunscreens with ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide are safer for the reef and your skin. Look for ones that are labeled as “non-nano.” Finding non-nano products is essential when visiting the USVI. It means that the particles in the sunscreen are greater than 100 nanometers and are too large to be absorbed by the coral.

  • Avoid the Toxic O’s: oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene.
  • Wear sun-protective clothing. You can significantly protect your skin by wearing UPF-rated fabrics. These have come a long way and can reduce your need to use as much sunscreen.
  • Avoid parabens. These are preservatives found in sunscreen, and they have been shown to be harmful to the reef as well as to humans. Look for a “paraben-free” product; many options are on the market.
  • Look for the words Mineral Sunscreen. These will be thicker and sometimes harder to rub into the skin, but they are safer for the reef. Also, one benefit is they offer immediate protection (chemical sunscreens typically take 20-30 minutes to absorb).

Here are some products I’ve tried, and like:

Mineral Sunscreen Bare Republic, Badger, Blue Lizard
Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen

With an SPF 50+ formula, this product offers good protection and minimal fragrance. It seems to rub into the skin and did not leave a white/gray cast.

Badger Sport Mineral Sunscreen

SPF 40 and is an unscented product. It is very thick but does not leave a white residue. This option is formulated with 22.5% zinc oxide; the other two combine zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Bare Republic Mineral Sunscreen Spray

An SPF of 50 comes in a spray form. It sprays on super sheer and light. It is slightly scented but is not offensive. If you prefer a spray, this is a good option.

Remember that there are no actual standards or regulatory requirements behind things labeled as “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly.” So simply relying on that notation on the packaging can be misleading. If traveling to a particular destination, research what chemicals are prohibited, and then check your ingredient list on the packaging.

Even though a sunscreen is reef-safe, it’s essential to consider the level of protection you’re getting. According to dermatologists, you should use a product with an SPF of 30 or higher. You should also select a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection to protect you from UVA and UVB rays.

So the main takeaway is ALWAYS to use sunscreen, and when seeking a “reef-safe” option, look for the following:

  • SPF of 30 or greater
  • Broad Spectrum Protection
  • Avoid active ingredients such as Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, and Octocrylene
  • Look for active ingredients such as Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide
  • The words mineral and non-nano can help in your search
  • Combine sunscreen with SPF-protective clothing,

Now you’re ready for a day at the beach!

Below are links and resources to help you plan The perfect trip

Travel Resources

  • HOTELS
    Booking.com and Expedia.com are great resources for accommodations around the world. Book almost any hotel directly from these links.
  • TOURS
    The best places to book tours and activities are Viator or Get Your Guide . From great food tours to guided hiking adventures to local walking tours, you will find great experiences to add to your travels here.
  • FOOD EXPERIENCES
    EatWith is a great resource for authentic culinary experiences with passionate locals worldwide. Connecting travelers with hosts in over 130 countries, providing unique, intimate, and immersive experiences in private homes and exclusive venues.
  • TRAINS
    Trainline is Europe’s leading train and coach app. They work with over 210 rail and coach companies to help their customers travel to thousands of destinations across 45 countries. 

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