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Coral reefs


Reef-Friendly Sunscreen Guide: Protect Your Skin and Our Oceans

June 20th was the summer solstice, the longest day of the year in the Northern Hemisphere when the sun reaches its highest and northernmost point in the sky. For most, it also marks the beginning of sun-filled vacations, holidays, and getaways to the beach or outdoors. 

If, like us, you love spending time outdoors—especially in the ocean and on the beach—protecting your skin is essential. While sunscreen plays a crucial role in skin protection, some ingredients can unfortunately harm coral reefs and marine life.

When you walk into your local store, there are many sunscreen options. It can often feel overwhelming with so many bottles donning their own unique branding, designs, and promoting their own declarations health and environmental impact. As we near the 4th of July, we're here to help!

Let’s explore how you can stay safe in the sun while keeping our beautiful marine ecosystems healthy.

The Impact of Sunscreen on Marine Life

Globally, most coral reefs face threats from both natural and human-induced factors. One significant threat is the release of sunscreen products into seawater, which can lead to extensive and rapid coral bleaching. Sunscreen enters the marine environment not only when you swim or surf but also, surprisingly, when you shower. 

According to a 2015 paper published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the world’s reefs each year. Many sunscreens contain a chemical called oxybenzone, which can rapidly bleach coral and inhibit its growth, even in very small amounts. Beyond coral, sunscreen chemicals also impact all marine life.

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To protect coral reefs, some destinations - for example, Hawaii, Key West in Florida, Palau, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, Bonaire, and Mexico - have banned chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals known to harm coral. 

What is a reef-friendly sunscreen?

Since there are no official regulations for the terms "reef-friendly" and "reef-safe," it’s important not to rely solely on packaging claims. Instead, next time to enter the aisles of your nearest store, here is a helpful guide for your reference:

1. Look for products with only zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as active ingredients.

2. Check the active ingredients list to ensure harmful substances are not included like the ones included on the HEL list:

  • Avobenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Oxybenzone
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Microplastics, such as “exfoliating beads”
  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc or titanium. Be sure to use micro-sized (or non-nano) mineral sunscreens.
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan

3. Try to opt for lotions instead of sprays and mists. Sprays and mists may have titanium dioxide, and inhaling it could be harmful.

4. And remember, cutting back on single-use plastics is always a win! Opt for reusable containers, ones made from recycled materials, or those crafted from plant-based sources like cardboard. It’s also a simple way to help protect our planet!

Other Reef-Friendly Sun Protection Tips

Besides using reef-friendly sunscreen, there are several other effective ways to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. One of the best methods is to seek shade, especially during peak sun hours between 10am and 2pm when the sun's rays are the strongest and most damaging. Additionally, wearing a wide-brimmed hat can provide shade for your face, neck, and ears, while UV-blocking sunglasses protect your eyes and the delicate skin around them. Opt for sun-protective clothing like long-sleeved shirts and leggings (made from UV-protective fabric, or not), and don't forget to bring a beach umbrella or pop-up tent if you plan to stay at the beach for an extended period!

Share the Message & Support Bans on Sunscreens That Harm Our Reefs

Along with adjusting our own habits and purchases to safeguard marine environments, raising awareness among friends, family, and community members is crucial. At the local level, check that your town’s stores stock genuinely “reef-friendly” sunscreen options and encourage them to discontinue harmful products. Feel free to pass along this handout to local businesses and your community to help spread the word!

To learn more about “reef friendly” sunscreens, the negative impacts of chemical-based sunscreens, and to get a list of some more great sunscreen options, visit

Our article was inspired by Surfrider's article from May 20, 2024 posted here: Your Guide to Reef Friendly Sunscreen! This Summer Choose Minerals Over Chemicals