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Best Reef Safe Sunscreens

Protect yourself and the sea-life below you with these reef-safe sunscreens. Photo: Beth Parsons//The Inertia


The Inertia

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.

If you want to learn more about how these sunscreens compared to one another, check out our Comparison Table. Or, if you wish to find out more about what makes a good reef safe sunscreen, head to our Buyer’s Guide.

The Best Reef Safe Sunscreens of 2024

Best Overall Reef Safe Sunscreen: Raw Elements
Best Variety of Products: Sun Bum
Best Active Sun Protection: Salt and Stone
Best Kid-Friendly Sunscreen: Little Hands Hawaii
Best Zinc-Free Sunscreen: Manda Organic Sun Paste
Best Tinted Sunscreen: Avasol


Best Overall Reef Safe Sunscreen

RAW Elements Organic Sunscreen

Raw Elements

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, cruelty-free, and all-natural 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 (our personal favorite) doesn’t melt and can be fully worked into the skin to avoid looking like a ghost.
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Best Variety of Products

Sun Bum

Sun Bum Mineral Sunscreen

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 our 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.

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Best Active Protection

Salt and Stone

salt and stone spf 50 sunscreen best reef safe sunscreens

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 sunscreen also doesn’t leave you completely looking like a ghost. And they even have protective lip balms.

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Best Kid-Friendly Sunscreen

Little Hands Hawaii

our pick for best kids sunscreen was from little hands hawaii

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 eight 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.

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Best Zinc-Free Sunscreen

Manda Organic Sun PasteManda Sun paste

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. Manda also makes a moisturizing ointment, which feels amazing on dry skin.

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Best Tinted Sunscreen 

Avasol

avasol sunscreen

Pros: All day protection, smells good
Cons: Tinted sunscreen stains clothes, difficult to wash off

What Is It? Avasol’s name originates from the Samoan word “ava” for respect and “sol” for sun. Avasol’s sunscreens are made using the finest natural and organic ingredients like botanical oils, minerals, and antioxidants. Avasol’s products are packaged in biobased and refillable packaging to minimize their impact on the planet. Avasol offers four different tint options, so you can color match your skin.

Does It Work? Trusted by pro surfers around the world, Avasol is a tried and true sunscreen option. The face stuff goes on thick and doesn’t come off even if you wear it all day. The only place we found we needed to reapply was our lips. The body sunscreen works well too, but it’s not quite as thick, so we do recommend reapplying if you plan on being out all day.

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Best of the Rest

All Good Mineral Sunscreen Butter

All Good Sunscreen

Pros: Biodegradable and vegan
Cons: Expensive

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.

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Surf Durt

SurfDurt Sunscreen

Pros: It’s edible, 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.

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YeaBah

YeaBah Sunscreen

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.

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Surfyogis

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.”

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EiR NYC Surf Mud

EiR NYC sunscreen

Pros: Breathable, tinted
Cons: Expensive

What Is It? Inspired by the Mayan chocolate mask, EiR NYC’s Surf Mud is a tinted mineral sunscreen. The SPF 30 sunscreen uses a 100% reef safe formula, including non-nano zinc as its active ingredient. It also contains tucuma and hokum seed butter that help keep the skin hydrated without clogging pores.

Does It Work? Not only is the EiR NYC Surf Mud effective, but it feels good on the skin. Where some mineral sunscreens feel thick and suffocating, the Surf Mud feels nice and airy, making it a great pick for all day wear. If you prefer a face stick, Eir NYC also offers an SPF 50 face stick. 

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Badger Sport Mineral Sunscreen

badger sunscreen

Pros: Four simple ingredients
Cons: Difficult to squeeze out of the tube

What Is it? Made with just four ingredients, Badger Sport Mineral Sunscreen is simple yet effective. The sunscreen is made from zinc oxide, sunflower oil, beeswax, and vitamin E that work together to moisturize, nourish, and protect. Made with 100% solar power in the USA by a women-owned and run family business, Badger mineral sunscreens have no synthetic ingredients, are cruelty free, and come in 50% PCR tubes.

Does It Work? Badger sunscreen is thick and difficult to squeeze out of the tube, but a little goes a long way. The sunscreen held its own in the hot Hawaiian sun and it’s water resistant for 80 minutes. We liked the Active sunscreen for sports, the Kid’s version for children, and the Face Stick for use on the face.

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Everyday California

everyday California sunscreen

Pros: All day protection
Cons: Goes on really thick

What Is It? Free of Oxybenzone, Octocrylene, Octinoxate, Phenoxyethanol, Parabens and all other chemical UV filters, the Everyday California sunscreen is an affordable reef safe mineral sunscreen. The sunscreen is water resistant for up to 80 minutes, is unscented, and offers broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection.

Does It Work? The Everyday California sunscreen goes on thick like white paint. Instead of spraying it directly on the body, we found it worked best to spray a little in our hands and rub it on. However, it is highly effective and if you cake it on thick it’ll last you all day long.

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Reef Safe Sunscreen Comparison Table

Name SPF Key Ingredients Category
Raw Elements 30 Zinc oxide, Green tea, Rosemary oil Best Overall Reef Safe Sunscreen
Sun Bum 50 Coconut and avocado oil Best Variety of Products
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
Avasol 30 Zinc oxide, Jojoba oil, sunflower oil Best Tinted 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 N/A Zinc, cocoa, coffee, vanilla Honorable Mention
EiR NYC’s Surf Mud 30 Zinc, tucuma, kokum seed butter Honorable Mention
Badger Sport 40 Zinc, sunflower oil Honorable Mention
Everyday California 50 Zinc, blue algae Honorable Mention

Gotta protect the money maker. Image: Manda

Gotta protect the money maker. Photo: Manda

Reef Safe Sunscreen Buyer’s Guide

What Is Reef Safe Sunscreen?

Traditionally, sunscreen is chemical based and utilizes chemicals that block UVA and UVB rays. Studies have shown that chemical sunscreen can be both damaging to aquatic ecosystems, including coral reefs, as well as to the human body. Reef safe or mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, use active ingredients like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that create a barrier on your skin that reflects UV light.

raw elements sunscreen

Reef safe sunscreen creates a barrier on your skin that reflects UV light. Photo: Beth Parsons//The Inertia

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.

Badger sunscreen sitting on the sand

Clean ingredients are good for you and for the reef. Photo: Rebecca Parsons//The Inertia

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.

a vibrant reef

There’s a whole lot down there worth protecting. Photo: Hiroko Yoshii//Unsplash

What Should I Look For When Shopping for Reef Safe Sunscreen?

Ingredients

We’ve touched on ingredients a lot already, but a good rule of thumb is to look for ingredients that you know, recognize, and can pronounce. If it’s something you’ve never heard of, it’s most likely a chemical. If you’re unsure, pull out your trusty cell phone and do a quick Google search.

SPF

SPF, which stand for Sun Protection Factor, is a measure of how long sunscreen will protect your skin from UV rays. SPF 15 blocks 93% of UVB rays, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVB rays, and SPF 50 blocks 98% of UVB rays. Read your sunscreen label to learn how often you should reapply but generally you should reapply at minimum every 80 minutes.

Tinted vs. Non-Tinted

Most mineral sunscreens go on fairly thick, so it can be nice to have some sort of tint so you’re not walking around looking like a ghost. However, some people aren’t a fan of tint and it can stain your clothes. If you’re opting for a tinted sunscreen, it’s nice to find a color that is similar to your skin tone, so there’s no stark contrast. We often prioritize tinted sunscreens for our faces and are less picky when it comes to sunscreen for the entire body.

EiR sunscreen

Tinted sunscreens help you avoid looking like a ghost. Photo: Rebecca Parsons//The Inertia

Rub-In Ability

Because reef safe or mineral sunscreen isn’t absorbed by the skin, it doesn’t really “rub in.” However, we’ve found that some reef safe sunscreen sit on your skin like a fresh coast of white paint while others spread out evenly, leaving a thin layer across your skin. We prefer the later.

Wash Off

Reef safe sunscreens are thick and can be difficult to wash off at the end of the day. Some will come off with good old fashioned soap and water but if you’re struggling to get your sunscreen off, we recommend an oil cleanser, a loofah, or a salt scrub.

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Editor’s Note: Looking for additional sun protection. Check out The Best Sun Shirts of 2024. Or, if you’re looking for something to wear in the water we’ve got The Best Rash Guards of 2024 and The Best Rash Guards for Women in 2023. Looking for some protection for your eyes? The Best Sunglasses of 2023 will do the trick. For more gear reviews and features on The Inertia, click here.

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