Life Style

The 7 Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens of 2023

Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens

The importance of protecting our skin from harmful UV rays has been known for centuries—but the understanding of how many sunscreens on the market can cause significant damage to marine life is relatively new. According to Lea d’Auriol, Founder of International Non-Profit Oceanic Global, oxybenzone and octinoxate (common active ingredients in SPF products) are major contributors to coral bleaching. “More than 25 percent of all marine life depends on healthy coral reefs for survival,” she explains. Coral bleaching is so harmful that Hawaii and several other regions around the world have banned these ingredients.

So, it’s no surprise that companies and consumers alike are making it a point to opt for sun protection products that are considered “reef-safe.” “The term ‘reef-safe sunscreen’ is not regulated, so it is important to check the active ingredients label to ensure that reef-harming chemicals are not included,” explains d’Auriol. “As a general rule, options without oxybenzone and octinoxate are a good first indicator of more ocean-friendly options,” she says.

To take the guesswork out of it for you, we put some of the top-rated reef-safe SPFs to the test, both in The Lab as well as at home. Our 19 testers evaluated 24 products based on how easily they spread across the skin and absorbed, how they felt on the skin, how water-resistant they were, whether or not they created a white cast, and most importantly, how well they protected their skin. And ahead, we’re sharing which ones performed the best.

 

Pipette Mineral Sunscreen - SPF 50 Broad Spectrum Sunblock with Non-Nano Zinc

While SPF is a skincare routine staple, finding a great one can be challenging. Many are thick, hard to rub in, leave a white cast, etc., but this one is as close to perfect as it gets—and of course, it’s reef-safe. We were thoroughly impressed with the application of this product. The lightweight, creamy texture is easy to rub in and absorbs quickly without leaving a dry or greasy feel behind. Though it comes out of the tube in a white-ish color, it doesn’t create even a minor white cast—a major win considering that it’s powered by zinc oxide, which often does.

While it does transfer just a bit onto clothing, we love that it’s pretty water-resistant and remains well intact after swimming or sweating. If you’re looking for an affordable, reef-safe SPF that’s easy to apply, comfortable on the skin, and doesn’t leave a white cast, we absolutely recommend this one.

Price at time of publish: $11

Active Ingredients: Zinc oxide | SPF: 50 | Size: 4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes

Hello Bello Mineral SPF 50+ Sunscreen Lotion

Considering how much SPF you need to use in order for it to effectively protect your skin from the sun (roughly one ounce to cover the entire body, according to the American Academy of Dermatology), it’s a product that can be really pricey to continuously repurchase. That’s why having an affordable go-to is so important, and this one is fantastic. The formula contains cocoa seed butter and avocado to nourish the skin, it boasts 80 minutes of water resistance, and it’s dermatologist-tested and hypoallergenic.

The creamy lotion texture rubs into the skin with ease and absorbs quickly. After rubbing it in for a few seconds, any remnants of a white cast disappear, and the skin is left feeling comfortable and non-greasy. It’s also impressive in terms of how well it resists transfer and water.

One con to note about this formula is that it has a strong, lemony fragrance. But considering all of its other positive attributes and how affordable and accessible it is, this product absolutely still earns the Byrdie stamp of approval.

Price at time of publish: $9

Active Ingredients: Non-nano zinc oxide | SPF: 50 | Size: 3 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes

Biossance Squalane + Zinc Sheer Mineral Sunscreen

Sephora

Though your face and body both require proper sun protection, oftentimes SPFs that were not specifically formulated for the face can feel heavy or uncomfortable on the skin. And while this one can be used all over, we think it’s a great option for the face. The formula contains water lily to help cool and calm the skin, as well as sugarcane-derived squalane for added moisturizing benefits. It also has a liquidy-lotion texture that feels light and comfortable once applied.

The fluid formula is easy to rub in, absorbs quickly, and doesn’t feel sticky to the touch. Upon the initial application, the formula does create a minor white cast. However, after rubbing it in and letting it sit for about 15 minutes, the cast almost completely disappears. Also note that if you’ll be wearing makeup on top of your facial SPF, this might not be a major concern for you. When it comes to transfer and water resistance, the formula didn’t hold up as well as other options. But the brand doesn’t claim that the formula is water-resistant, so while it might not be your best bet for a beach day, it’s still a fantastic option for daily use.

Price at time of publish: $34, $46

Active Ingredients: Zinc oxide | SPF: 30 | Size: 1.7 or 3.4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes

 California Baby Super Sensitive SPF 30 Lotion

Those with sensitive skin know that finding a sunscreen that’s effective and non-irritating can be tricky. We love this one because It’s safe for the oceans as well as sensitive skin and baby skin. It’s free from tons of potential irritants and allergens, like nuts (except coconut), gluten, soy, dairy, fragrance, and chemical SPF.

While the texture is pretty thick and takes a bit of effort to rub in, it’s smooth and creamy, and it feels comfortable once applied. It’s also non-greasy and super resistant to water. It does create a noticeable white cast when first applied, but that fades pretty much completely after about 30 minutes. If you’ve struggled to find sunscreens that are non-irritating on your skin, this one is absolutely worth giving a try.

Price at time of publish: $14, $24, $40, $125

Active Ingredients: Titanium dioxide | SPF: 30 | Size: 1.8, 2.9, 6, 19 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes

Suntegrity Mineral Body Sunscreen

Working hard to fully rub your SPF into your skin isn’t a pleasant experience, making absorbency one of the key factors we evaluated during this test. While many options boasted impressive absorption capabilities, this one was the best at melting into the skin with almost no effort required. The fluid, lotion consistency makes it easy to spread around the body, and it absorbs into the skin in the blink of an eye without leaving behind a thick, chalky, or greasy residue. Though it does create a hint of a white cast upon the initial application, that cast quickly fades after just a moment or two.

In addition to how well it absorbs into the skin and how comfortable it is once applied, it’s also impressive in terms of how well it resists transfer and running when it comes into contact with water. If you’re particularly picky about finding sunscreens that don’t feel like the dry, heavy, hard-to-blend products of the past, we highly recommend checking this one out.

Price at time of publish: $24, $36

Active Ingredients: Zinc oxide | SPF: 30 | Size: 3, 5 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes

 Hawaiian Tropic Mineral Skin Nourishing Milk SPF 50

Target

We’d be comfortable betting that many people who neglect to wear sunscreen on a regular basis do so because many SPF formulas are unpleasant to apply and wear throughout the day—but not this one. This liquidy formula pumps out of the bottle easily, blends into the skin with minimal effort, doesn’t leave an annoying chalky or oily residue on the skin, and doesn’t transfer or run when it comes into contact with sweat. Seriously, it lasted through swimming, a workout, and the sauna despite its thin texture and weightless feel on the skin.

It does feature that typical beachy scent that many heritage SPF brands are known for, and while we do prefer unscented options, at least this one smells nice and nostalgic. And while it does create a minor white cast, that cast is fairly undetectable after about 20 minutes of wear. If you’ve been searching for a weightless, reef-safe sunscreen, this is the one for you.

Price at time of publish: $18

Active Ingredients: Zinc oxide, titanium dioxide | SPF: 30 | Size: 3.4 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes

BLUE LIZARD Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen with Zinc Oxide 50+

Although proper SPF protection is important on an everyday basis, it’s especially important when you’re spending extended periods of time in direct sunlight. This sunscreen is a great option for beach days because it’s reef-safe (of course), features a color-changing cap that goes from white to blue or pink when exposed to UV rays to indicate it’s time to reapply, and it’s water-resistant. It has a lightweight, liquid-like formula that can be a bit runny and hard to control out of the tube, but the weightless texture makes it easy to spread and comfortable on the skin. It absorbs within seconds before setting down to a radiant finish with almost no white cast in sight.

What impressed us the most about this formula is how well it performed during water-resistance and transfer-resistance tests. It stayed put almost completely, making it a great option for all types of outdoor activities—especially days at the beach or pool. Plus, we love that it’s suitable for all skin types, including sensitive skin.

Price at time of publish: $15

Active Ingredients: Zinc oxide, titanium dioxide | SPF: 50 | Size: 5 ounces | Cruelty-Free: Yes

Final Verdict

The Pipette Mineral Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50 is our favorite reef-safe sunscreen. It’s lightweight, fast-absorbing, fragrance-free, water-resistant, and doesn’t create a white cast, all while remaining affordable. But if you have sensitive or reactive skin, we highly recommend the California Baby Super Sensitive Broad-Spectrum SPF 30+ Sunscreen for you.

 

What to Look for When Buying a Reef-Safe SPF

Water-Resistance

Lea d’Auriol recommends opting for SPFs that are water-resistant because this makes them less likely to wash off of your skin into the ocean. Plus, the better your sunscreen remains on your skin, the more protected you are from the harmful effects of the sun. The Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen 50+ is our favorite water-resistant option.

Level of Protection

It’s important to consider what level of protection you’re getting out of your SPF, regardless of whether it’s reef-safe or not. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, you should use a product that has an SPF of 30 or higher. They also recommend opting for a sunscreen that offers broad-spectrum protection to protect you from both UVA and UVB rays. Our top pick is the Pipette Mineral Sunscreen Broad Spectrum SPF 50—it has a high SPF, offers broad-spectrum protection, and is water-resistant.

FAQ
  • How do SPFs harm ocean life?

    There’s a growing movement to opt for reef-safe sunscreens—but why? Perhaps you’ve heard of coral bleaching, but what does it mean? According to d’Auriol, “coral bleaching occurs when changes in the corals (rising temperature, lack of nutrients, exposure to toxins, etc.) cause coral to become stressed.” “Stressed corals expel the symbiotic, food-producing algae that live in their tissues, exposing their white skeletons (kind of like taking off your sweater when the room is too hot). While bleached corals aren’t dead, they face an increased risk of disease and mortality. Chemicals in sunscreen can be toxic to the coral and also alter the pH in their environments, increasing the risk of the coral becoming stressed and bleaching.”

    Why is this important? Maintaining the health of corals is essential to other marine life, explains d’Auriol. “Over 25 percent of all marine life depends on healthy coral reefs for survival,” she says.

  • What makes an SPF reef-safe?

    This is the million-dollar question, and the answer isn’t totally straightforward. As d’Auriol mentioned, the term isn’t regulated. However, experts tend to consider reef-safe SPFs to be those that are formulated without chemical ingredients that are harmful to ocean life, most commonly oxybenzone and octinoxate.

  • How do I know if my SPF is reef-safe?

    In addition to common harmful ingredients, like oxybenzone and octinoxate, d’Auriol explains that there are other ingredients that are not reef-safe. “When buying reef-safe sunscreen, check that none of the following ingredients are included: oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, 4-methyl benzylidene camphor, PABA, parabens, triclosan, any nanoparticles (or ‘nano-sized’ zinc), titanium, and any form of microplastics like exfoliating beads,” she says.

 

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