You might have heard this bummer of a fact: An ingredient in chemical sunscreens — oxybenzone — is believed to contribute to the death of coral reefs. That’s no small matter when an estimated 5,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the water near coral reefs worldwide.
Hawaii led the charge in 2018 by implementing the world’s first sunscreen ban, which went into effect in 2021. The ban targets oxybenzone and octinoxate in an effort to rejuvenate the dying reefs around the state. Since then, other jurisdictions have followed suit, with similar bans in Key West, Palalau and within protected marine areas in Mexico. It’s safe to say that down the line, more areas will likely be joining the effort.
But at the end of the day, none of us want a sunburn, so a sunscreen still has to do it’s intended job. So we tested some of the top brands to help you make better choices. The result is the following list: all of which have non-nano (that means healthier for your body) zinc oxide, offer protection from UVA and UVB rays, and are meant for use in the water.
Being physical sunscreens (that work by forming a physical barrier from the sun, not by chemical reactions) they only work when they go on thick and stay put. That’s why we put each of these all-natural products to the test in the sun and surf of Southern California. Here’s what we found:
The Best Reef Safe Sunscreens
Best Variety of Products: Sun Bum
More than Just Sun Protection: Raw Elements
Best Active Sun Protection: Salt and Stone
Best Kid-Friendly Sunscreen: Little Hands Hawaii
Best Zinc-Free Sunscreen: Manda Organic Sun Paste
Other Sunscreens We Loved
Best Variety of Products
Pros: Wide array of products.
Cons: Banana fragrance isn’t for everyone.
What Is It? First, Sun Bum is pretty fun. Their marketing materials clearly indicate that they’re interested in having a good time. And while we certainly appreciate and endorse that sentiment, a good vibe doesn’t do a damn thing when it comes to protecting your skin from sun damage. Luckily, their sunscreen does. And it’s hypoallergenic and free of Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Gluten, Cruelty and Parabens to align its good vibes with strong global citizenry. So you can feel good about the whole process of protecting your skin from cancer. Note: Sun Bum’s fragrance is banana-forward, which some might love. Others…you’ve been warned.
Does It Work? Yes. This is easily my favorite face stick option out there, and Sun Bum also comes in a variety of different options to fit everyone’s sunscreen application preference such as lotion, spray-on and more. As far as the face sticks go (usually the easiest option for a wetsuited surfer) the SPF 50 option sticks incredibly well, so much so it sometimes lasts beyond the post-surf shower. The less protective but still awesome SPF 30 face stick goes on clear, and works great in all but the strongest of sun.
More Than Sun Protection
Pros: Full of antioxidants and other minerals that do more than protect you from the sun.
Cons: On the greasier side of products tested.
What Is It? This non-GMO verified, cruelty-free certified, natural products association certified sunblock has a familiar list of beeswax and plant extracts: tea leaf, cannabis seed oil, coffee bean extract, sunflower oil, mango butter, and cocoa butter. Coming in a variety of different tins, face-sticks, and tubes, there’s an option for every sunscreen preference.
Does It Work? Yes. It goes on easily, and provides great protection, though the face sticks can be on the greasy side. The tin (my personal favorite) doesn’t melt and can be fully worked into the skin to avoid looking like a ghost.
CHECK PRICE ON REI CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Best Active Protection
Pros: Recyclable packaging.
Cons: Scents might be too much for people with allergies.
What Is It? Aside from producing award-winning natural deoderant, Salt and Stone makes some damn good sunscreen as well. Founded in 2017 by former pro snowboarder Nima Jalali, their mission is to provide high-performing sun protection with minimal environmental impact. Their materials are all natural, packaging is 100% recyclable and made from already recycled materials, and it’s all manufactured using solar and hydroelectric energy.
Does It Work? Yes. With athletes on the team such as Chris Benchetler, Soli Bailey, Oscar Langburne and Austin Sweetin, the list of athletes who trust this brand for their sun protection is impressive. Beyond that, it has a nice light herbal scent, protects well, and isn’t too greasy. The face stick also doesn’t leave you completely looking like a ghost.
Best Kid-Friendly Sunscreen
Pros: Handmade in Hawaii, safe for kids.
Cons: Not widely available.
What is it? Little Hands Hawaii is handmade from a family business on the Big Island of Hawaii. So you know they have a vested interest in protecting the ocean for future generations and it’s not just for publicity. They have made a product that is easy to apply and won’t make small children want to pick their face.
Does it work? We used it on our 8 month old baby in Hawaii and she is probably the best test-case. Safe to say that she was happy and sunburn-free the whole time outside. She didn’t spend much time in the water, though, so we can’t really comment on that, but from what others have said, it works great in the water as well.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Best Zinc-Free Sunscreen
Pros: No Zinc = no mining.
Cons: Harder to get a good thick coat than other brands.
What Is It? As earth-friendly as all of these sunscreens are, they each rely on zinc oxide — whose component mineral must be mined from the earth — for solar protection. This offering from California-based Manda, a company started by surfer and filmmaker Cyrus Sutton, seeks to alleviate that impact by using less zinc. As a supplement, it contains thanaka, a paste made from the ground bark of a tree native to Myanmar. The other ingredients are coconut oil, beeswax, cacao, cocao butter, shea butter, and cinnamon oil.
Does It Work? Even though it’s distracting to have cinnamon rolls on your mind while you surf, the cinnamon scent is nice. Manda recommends letting the paste warm in the sun before application. Even when you do that, this product has a slightly less even consistency than others, so it’s a bit harder to get a thick, even coat. At $28 per 40-gram container, Manda’s Organic Sun Paste is the most expensive product on this list, but it has the highest SPF (50) and is possibly the most sustainable as well.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Other Brands We Loved
Pros: Biodegradable and vegan.
What Is It? All Good is just that. Made from all the good stuff, like Calendula, which is grown on All Good’s farm and repairs damaged skin. It’s biodegradable, reef-friedly, oxybenzone free, gluten free, vegan, and fragrance-free. So…it’s safe. It will, however, leave a smudge on your shirt if you’re not precise with your application, but pretty much all of the sunscreens on this list will do that.
Does It Work? It’s mineral-based protection by reflection, meaning it’s not absorbed into your body. Essentially, it’s just a physical barrier, so if it comes off…you’ll get burnt. Remember that.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Best Edible Sunscreen
Pros: It’s edible. It’s also free of synthetic chemicals.
Cons: Thickness and dark color might not be for everyone.
What Is It? Surf Durt got after it with its commitment to the planet. We’ll give ’em that. Aside from its clever spelling of the word dirt, this product is made with 11, food-grade ingredients that you can pronounce – and theoretically eat. So that’s a nice perk. If you’re hungry, and all you have is SurfDurt, you could just eat it. You probably shouldn’t though. While it might be a questionable addition to a meal, SurfDurt maintains that it’s completely free from synthetic chemicals. It does include certified organic ingredients like coconut and avocado oils. Beyond that, its made in America at a solar-powered manufacturing facility.
Does It Work? Yes. Cake that stuff on and try not to lick your lips.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Pros: Comes with both face stick and a tube.
Cons: Waxy consistency can be hard to apply.
What Is It? The face stick from this San Diego-based company is 20 percent zinc, plus beeswax, coconut oil, cocoa butter, cacao, and shea Butter. Its texture is slightly waxier than other suncreens on this list, with very little of the greasy-feeling residue. Thirty-one dollars buys you a 14-gram face stick and 28-gram tube (sold together).
Does It Work? Science says yes! YeaBah publishes on their website the slightly confusing results of FDA tests apparently showing that their products work. We’ll take their word for it. We do know that their face stick goes on nicely, though owing to its waxy consistency it is harder to apply in a thick, even coat. In the harshest environments, where you want an impenetrable armor against the sun, you might consider using something else. For lighter applications, knock yourself out.CHECK PRICE ON AMAZON
Pros: Great for tropical latitudes.
Cons: The purple color might scare some people.
What Is It? You could probably scoop this into your morning coffee and make a nice mocha, because along with the zinc, it’s got cocoa powder, coffee extract, vanilla bean, beeswax and castor oil. There’s free shipping to the U.S. if you buy five 60-gram containers at $25 each.
Does It Work? Made in Bali, this stuff is apparently meant for tropical climes. It has a bit of a sticky consistency, so working it onto the skin can be a bit of a chore but it goes on thick and stays in place. Be advised that the color is an earthy purple, which might give people one more reason to call you a “Barney.”CHECK PRICE ON surfyogis
|Sun Bum||50||Coconut and avocado oil||Best Variety of Products|
|Raw Elements||30||Zinc oxide, Green tea, Rosemary oil||Best Additional Benefits|
|Salt and Stone||50||Ashwagandha, Green tea||Best Active Protection|
|Manda Organic Paste||50||Thanaka, Coconut Oil, Cinnamon Oil||Best Zinc Free Sunscreen|
|Little Hands Hawaii||40||Zinc oxide, Sunflower oil||Best Kid-Friendly Sunscreen|
|All Good||50||Calendula, Coconut oil||Honorable Mention|
|Surf Durt||30||Zinc oxide, Coconut oil, Jojoba||Honorable Mention|
|YeahBah||30||Zinc oxide, Olive oil||Honorable Mention|
|Surfyogis||Zinc, cocoa, coffee, vanilla||Honorable Mention|
What is Reef-Safe Sunscreen Made From?
While all the products we tested lack the harmful chemical oxybenzone (and most, but not all also don’t have octinoxate), they differ for what products they use to keep you safe from the sun. Here’s a list of the most common ingredients that enable sun protection, mostly through creating a sun shield on top of the skin rather than being absorbed.
Zinc Oxide is the most common ingredient for reef-safe sunscreens, as you will see in our table above. It is a mineral that isn’t absorbed by the skin, so it’s essentially like a giant reflector to keep UV rays away. It doesn’t degrade in the sun so can stay out for a long time, but most people under-apply because of the white paste and our habit of thinking sunscreen needs to be “rubbed in” to work. But with Zinc you need a healthy coat for it to work effectively, which might turn some people off.
Coconut Oil does have some SPF qualities but it’s quite minimal compared to what we need. But it’s still good to have on the skin due to its moisturizing and antimicrobial properties. But it also has the tendency to clog pores, so can lead to breakouts to people with oily skin. There are also people who are allergic to coconut oil, so always do a spot check before broadly applying if you’re unsure.
Thanaka is found in Manda’s products and has been used in Myanmar for thousands of years. While it’s accepted that thanaka does have SPF qualities, there have been few studies for exactly how much.
Avocado Oil has great nutrition within it. It is rich in vitamins A, D, and E, and omega-3 fatty acids and antioxidants. So it’s worth it to have on the skin, and it does offer some sun protection, but best to be used with other products for the best effect.
Editor’s Note: For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.