Help Protect the Planet With the Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens

The best picks for environmentally friendly SPF—and why you should care

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Some sunscreens contain ingredients that are harmful to reefs, but you can minimize your environmental impact by choosing your products with intention. “Whether your sunscreen is damaging to a reef or not depends on the method it uses to protect you from the sun, and the chemicals used to make it,” explains marine conservation researcher Holly Appleby.

Chemical sunscreen contains a chemical called oxybenzone that absorbs UV, she explains. “When this chemical gets into the water, it causes the coral to bleach at a lower water temperature, meaning it bleaches quicker and easier,” she says. “Bleached coral will have reduced growth rates and decreased reproductive capacity. Oxybenzone can also damage the DNA of coral, leading to deformities and growth anomalies.”

Sadly, she says, it takes very little exposure to damage a reef in these ways: “even sitting on the beach and spraying sunscreen onto your body” can cause it to “settle on the sand and later get washed into the sea.”

To mitigate these dangers, look for mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (sometimes called physical sunscreens), recommends Dr. Harry Fallick, surgeon and SPF expert. “These reflect and refract light and heat away from the skin,” the doctor explains. “These are not only safe and effective, but are gentle enough even for sensitive skin.”

 To help focus your search, here are our picks for the best reef-safe sunscreens available.

The Rundown

Best Overall: ThinkSport SPF 50+ at Amazon

Without nano-zinc particles and meant to last in the water, this a great all-around cream.

Best Budget: Banana Boat Simply Protect Sunscreen SPF 50 at Amazon

Comes in at a drugstore price point and is easily obtainable.

Best for Sensitive Skin: Aveeno Positively Mineral Sunscreen at Amazon

Fragrance-free, hypoallergenic, and dries matte so it's a great option for sensative skin.

Best Natural: Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Sunscreen at Amazon

A naturally sourced lotion that is lightweight, oil-free, and water-resistant up to 80 minutes.

Best for Face: Sun Bum Face Lotion at Amazon

It's lightweight, fragrance-free, and won't make you break out.

Best for Dry Skin: Coola Classic Face Sunscreen at Amazon

Nourish dry skin with this organic face sunscreen loaded with antioxidants.

Best Tinted: La Roche-Posay Anthelios Tinted Mineral Sunscreen at Amazon

The sunscreen's tint helps prevent any white chalky residue.

Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Blissoma Broad Spectrum Facial Sunscreen at Blissoma

Conditioning squalane means there’s no need for heavy silicones.

Best for Daily Use: Purlisse Blue Lotus Daily Moisturizer SPF 30 at Purlisse

Use this daily as a moisturizer to help banish free radical damage.

Best Powder: A Method Protection Powder at Amazon

Apply both your foundation and sunscreen with this multitasking powder.

Best Overall: ThinkSport SPF 50+

“My favorite is Thinksport SPF 50+ sunscreen,” says Dr. Adam Mamelak, an Austin-based dermatologist. “It is made primarily with larger nano-zinc particles that don't penetrate the skin. It offers great protection and stays on while in the water [and] with activity.” Even though this is an excellent product, shoppers should take one thing into consideration. “The only downside is it tends to leave a white cast. I usually recommend it for those looking for good protection while being active outdoors.”

Best Budget: Banana Boat Simply Protect Sunscreen SPF 50

Robert Ecker, a practicing dermatologist who routinely performs skin cancer surgeries, recommends Banana Boat's sensitive-skin sunscreen. “This is a national brand, easily obtainable, and even has a reef-safe designation,” he explains. And this one comes in at a drugstore price point.

Best for Sensitive Skin: Aveeno Positively Mineral Sunscreen

Jill Canes, a certified nurse practitioner with her own med spa practice, recommends Aveeno Positively Mineral Sensitive Skin Sunscreen SPF 50. “The sunscreen contains zinc oxide and does not use chemical blockers,” she says. “It is non-comedogenic, lightweight, and dries to form a matte layer over your skin so that it doesn't feel greasy.” This formula is also fragrance-free and hypoallergenic, making it a great option for sensitive skin.

Best Natural: Neutrogena Sheer Zinc Sunscreen

Neutrogena SheerZinc Mineral Sunscreen

Courtesy of Neutrogena

Neutrogena’s naturally sourced lotion with broad-spectrum SPF 30 is lightweight, hypoallergenic, oil-free, sweat and water-resistant for up to 80 minutes, and it won’t clog pores. “This sunscreen is reef-safe as it uses zinc oxide,” Canes says. “It goes on smoothly and it will dry up to a powdery finish that doesn't feel greasy.”

Best for Face: Sun Bum Face Lotion

Mamelak recommends this sunscreen, calling it an “elegant alternative with its clean, vegan, and even gluten-free formulation. It's lightweight, fragrance-free, won't make you break out and contains no octinoxate or oxybenzone, making it a reef-safe option.”

Best for Dry Skin: Coola Classic Face Sunscreen

Nourish dry skin with this organic face sunscreen that’s lightweight, sheer, and non-greasy. Antioxidants help fight free radicals and hydrate skin in this product formulated with red raspberry seed oil, buriti oil, meadowfoam seed oil, and prickly pear extract. This SPF 50 sunscreen is also water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. Plus, it’s vegan, cruelty-free, and gluten free.

Best Tinted: La Roche-Posay Anthelios Tinted Mineral Sunscreen

NYC-based board-certified dermatologist Susan Bard cites this tinted ultralight sunscreen fluid as her “favorite reef-safe sunscreen.” “Just as is stated in the name, it's light and doesn't leave behind a heavy, greasy feel,” she says. “The tint helps prevent the white chalky residue left behind by most mineral sunscreens.”

Best for Acne-Prone Skin: Blissoma Broad Spectrum Facial Sunscreen

Blissoma Light Shifting Solution SPF 25 Broad Spectrum Facial Sunscreen + Moisturizer

Courtesy of Blissoma

This mineral facial sunscreen has clean and reef-safe ingredients. It’s loaded with antioxidants, vitamins, and phytonutrients, plus oils like argan and tamanu. Conditioning squalane in the emollient mix means there’s no need for silicones, making it great for acne-prone skin. When you pump it, you’ll notice a rosy hue, but it won’t provide a tint: it's astaxanthin. Studies show this red algae ingredient is antioxidant rich and helps the body in stressful situations like sun exposure.

Best for Daily Use: Purlisse Blue Lotus Daily Moisturizer SPF 30

Purlisse Blue Lotus Daily Moisturizer SPF 30

Courtesy of Purlisse

Purlisse’s reef-safe formula prevents coral reef bleaching, with no oxybenzone or octinoxate. Use it every day as a moisturizer to help banish free radical damage; it has SPF 30, but no white tint and a grease-free finish. The lightweight and moisturizing formula works great under makeup, too.

Best Powder: A Method Protection Powder

This product is a mineral-based foundation and SPF 30 all-in-one powder in a self-dispensing tube. Made with only four ingredients—and free from parabens, gluten, fragrance, and colorants—it’s lightweight, water-resistant, and crease-resistant. It’s available in seven skin-toned colors (plus an eighth with no color); use it alone or over makeup.

Best Spray: Suncare Guava Mango Eco-Lux Sport Sunscreen Spray

Coola Suncare Guava Mango Eco-Lux Sport Sunscreen Spray SPF 50q

Courtesy of Nordstrom

If you prefer a spray, this continuous non-aerosol sunscreen is a well-loved pick for all skin types. This water-resistant sunscreen has SPF 50, and an intoxicating guava mango scent. The formulation is this ultra-sheer for use on the go, with mostly organic ingredients like cucumber, algae, and strawberry extracts along with the natural sunscreen booster, red raspberry seed oil.

Final Verdict

If you want to reduce environmental harm and take care of your skin, go for ThinkSport SPF 50+ (view at Amazon). ThinkSport provides great protection, whether you're active on land or in the water. Plus, the lotion's nano-zinc particles won't penetrate your skin. And protecting our reefs doesn't need to be expensive. Go and grab Banana Boat's Simply Protect Sunscreen (view at Amazon), which is great for sensitive skin and sold in many local drugstores.

What to Look for in Reef-Safe Sunscreens 

Mineral-Based Ingredients

Ecker says he “advocate[s] strongly that my patients use mineral-only sunblocks. These products are safer, more effective, and broader spectrum than almost any chemical-based product. They are also more stable and water-resistant than any chemical product, which makes them ideal for reef visitors.”

Formulation and Method of Application

If you don’t pick a sunscreen that feels good and goes on easily, you might not use it at all—and that won’t help protect you. “Your choice of form makes a difference,” Fallick says. “Sprays are convenient, but typically use the chemical filters and carry the additional risk of inhalation. And the propellants may themselves be harmful to the environment.”

Skin Type

Identify your skin type before settling on a sunscreen, especially for the delicate skin on your face. Are you dry? Acne prone? Overall sensitive? Look for a sunscreen with a formulation targeted to your specific needs.

Frequently Asked Questions
  • How can sunscreen harm the ocean?

    In addition to damaging reefs, Appleby says, “sunscreen also contains preservatives that can harm marine life. Both mineral and chemical sunscreen can contain harmful nano-particles that the fish absorb. Reef-safe sunscreens will be labeled non-nano and won’t damage the reef nor marine life.”

  • What are the benefits of protecting reefs?

    “Reefs are arguably the most valuable ecosystems on earth, providing a home to over 25 percent of all marine life.” A healthy coral reef provides humans with food, construction materials, and even medicine,” Appleby says. “Scientists believe coral reefs may be the future of medicine, using the chemical defenses present in marine life to produce drugs to battle cancer, viruses, arthritis, and Alzheimer’s.”

    They also protect our shores and communities from damage from waves, storms, and flooding. “Reefs work as a natural barrier, absorbing over 95 percent of the energy caused by waves,” she says. “Damaged coral will no longer effectively reduce the power of the waves hitting the shore, leading to more lives lost and greater damage.”

    Beyond all that, reefs are just stunning features of our natural environment, “full of wonder and mystery,” she says (and anyone who’s ever snorkeled amid a reef’s ecosystem will wholeheartedly agree).

  • Why shouldn’t I use mineral-based sunscreens?

    “All other sunscreen active ingredients are chemical absorbers, including oxybenzone and homosalate, octinoxate, and octocrylene, among others,” Dr. Fallick says. “While these are approved ingredients, you may want to avoid them because there are questions about their impact on both humans and the environment.”

Why Trust TripSavvy

Alesandra Dubin lives in Los Angeles, the land of nearly perpetual summer, where sunscreen is particularly important year round. As a parent of young twins—one with especially fair and sensitive skin—it’s her continual mission to understand and cover the best products on the market.

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