Why Reef Safe Sunscreen?

Why Reef Safe Sunscreen?

Why Reef Safe Sunscreen?

by Sharon 

A few years ago, my family and I were planning a trip to Hawaii with our one year old daughter. This was the year the state announced that they would be transitioning to ban all sunscreens that are not deemed “Reef Safe”. Scientists were connecting chemical sunscreen residue washing off ocean-goers bodies to coral reef bleaching, putting reefs under severe stress and leaving them susceptible to disease and death. If you live in an area away from the ocean, this may not be on your radar as a concern for your family. However, chemical sunscreens (and even some mineral types) can still pose risks to our environment and our health. 


Chemical Sunscreen vs. Reef Safe:

Chemical sunscreen is absorbed by then skin and works by soaking up UV rays and converting them to heat. That said, there are concerns about some of the ingredients they may contain that could be absorbed into the bloodstream. More research needs to be completed, but it is definitely a concern on many parents’ minds. Many of these sunscreens primarily use ingredients such as Oxybenzone and octinoxate as the active ingredient to absorb UV rays. These ingredients are what are thought to also have a negative impact on coral reefs.

Reef safe sunscreens use minerals that lay on top of the skin as a physical barrier, reflecting the sun’s rays. Because of this, they tend to leave a white layer on top of the skin instead of looking clear like most chemical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as the active ingredients to block the sun’s rays. However, not all mineral sunscreens are created the same and some may claim to be reef safe when they truly are not. 


What to look for in a Mineral Sunscreen:

 So what do I need to look out for to know I’m getting the real deal? 

  • Look for the seal “Reef Friendly Biodegradable” as a helpful start. Keep in mind, the term “Reef Friendly” is not well regulated so it isn’t a sure-fire indicator that you’re getting what they’re touting.
  • Look at both the active and inactive ingredients listed on the container 

                      chemical sunscreens= Oxybenzone and Octinoxate                                                                                      mineral sunscreens= zinc oxide and titanium oxide

  • Make sure it lists NON-nanotized zinc oxide/titanium dioxide. Nanoparticles (super tiny pieces) of these minerals are small enough to be ingested by coral reefs
  •  Keep an eye out for other harmful ingredients such as parabens and Triclosan

If you want an easy go-to reference for sunscreens that meet standards for reef safety and human safety, check out the Environmental Working Group’s Best Scoring Sunscreens for Babies and Kids (web link can be found at the end of this article). My personal favorite brand is Thinkbaby SPF 50, which made it in their top 16 safest sunscreens list. Or, you can skip all the legwork and pick up some Thinkbaby Sunscreen from Colorado Baby. We’ve got you covered (see what I did there?).  


What about Freshwater?

Ok, so it looks like signs point to Reef Safe/mineral sunscreens being a safer option for our oceans and our babies. Is it important for freshwater activities too? 

Yes. Ingredients from many sunscreens sit at the surface of water, posing a risk for insects that hang out on the water’s surface. Many ingredients can have estrogenic effects and can alter reproductive success in fish as well. Again, even mineral sunscreens pose a risk as nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can have a similar effect (another important reason why you should look for non-nanotized ingredients). 

For more details on what ingredients to watch out for and a great list of safe products, check out these sites:



Keep an eye out for a future article I'm writing, Does My Baby Need Sunscreen? My Family’s Secrets to Fun in the Sun. 

Until next time!


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