The world is huge

Don't miss any of it

Travel news, itineraries, and inspiration delivered straight to your inbox.

By proceeding, you agree to our Privacy Policy and Terms of Use.

Beautiful underwater panoramic view with tropical fish and coral reefs
Ievgen Skrypko | Adobe Stock

The Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens for Your Tropical Vacation

Summer is just around the corner, and if you’ve been knee-deep in planning your dream beach vacation, you’ve probably run across the term “reef-safe sunscreen.” Studies in recent years have shown that the UV-blocking chemicals in sunscreen cause damage to marine ecosystems, particularly coral reefs. In response, sunscreen manufacturers have shifted their focus to reef-safe products—but what makes a sunscreen ‘reef-safe’?

Whether you’re an environmentally conscious beach-goer or traveling to a destination with a sunscreen ban in place, here’s how you can soak up the sun sans harmful chemicals this summer. 

Young woman snorkeling at coral reef in tropical sea
Anton Tolmachov | Adobe Stock

What Makes Sunscreen Reef-Safe?

There is no standardized definition “‘reef-safe”, but it is commonly accepted that reef-safe sunscreens do not contain the chemicals oxybenzone or octinoxate. Other common UV-blocking ingredients, like octocrylene, can also cause damage to aquatic ecosystems. These chemicals wash off your skin while swimming in the ocean and contribute to coral bleaching.

What is Coral Bleaching?

Coral bleaching is when the algae living in the tissue of healthy coral dies or is expelled due to stressful conditions, causing the coral to lose its color and leaving it vulnerable to illness and damage. These conditions can be brought on, in part, by the chemicals commonly found in sunscreen.

What Type of Sunscreen is Safest for Coral Reefs?

When it comes to the science of sunscreen, there are two schools of thought: physical and chemical. 

Physical Sunscreen vs. Chemical Sunscreen vs. Organic Sunscreen

Physical sunscreen uses non-chemical ingredients, such as the zinc-oxide and titanium dioxide found in many mineral sunscreens, to create a physical barrier that deflects UV light away from the skin. Overall, physical sunscreens are more likely to be reef-safe, since they don’t contain the hallmark chemicals that interfere with marine life.

Chemical sunscreens use UV-blocking chemicals to create a barrier that either absorbs harmful rays or deflects them away from your skin. 

Organic sunscreen is a subtype of chemical sunscreen.The term “organic” has become synonymous with health and wellness. However, the designation ‘organic’ simply means that the chemicals in the formula are carbon-based. That means that many organic sunscreens could still contain the reef-bleaching chemical octinoxate.

Coral Isles Reef Safe Sunscreen

How Effective is Reef-Safe Sunscreen?

Since reef-safe sunscreens contain a spectrum of ingredients, the effectiveness of the sun protection they provide can vary. 

Physical sunscreens tend to provide less protection than their chemical counterparts and are less resistant to water and sweat. However, physical sunscreens are typically chemical-free, making them better for sensitive skin and safe for children.

While some chemical sunscreens meet the minimum accepted standard required by several nations’ sunscreen bans, better sun protection may come at an environmental cost. The research on what chemicals can impact marine life and to what extent is still uncertain, and chemicals that have taken a backseat could come forward as major players in potential environmental damage.

Consumer Reports recommends aiming for a balance between mitigating environmental risk and prioritizing your own sun protection. Travelers can do this by minimizing the amount of skin exposed to the sun (and therefore covered in sunscreen) through sun-protective clothing and  staying in the shade when possible. 

What Are the Best Reef Safe Sunscreen?

Luckily, the rise in awareness of our impact on coral reefs has caused a rise in options for reef-safe products. Some sunscreens are marketed as biodegradable, which is another way to flag that a sunscreen is reef-safe. 

Here are the best replacements for your sun protection favorites.

Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens for Body

Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens for Face

Best Reef-Safe Spray Sunscreens

You Might Also Like:

The 10 Best Gym Bags That Double As Carry-Ons
Best Luggage Trackers
The 7 Best Walking Boots for Travel

We hand-pick everything we recommend and select items through testing and reviews. Some products are sent to us free of charge with no incentive to offer a favorable review. We offer our unbiased opinions and do not accept compensation to review products. All items are in stock and prices are accurate at the time of publication. If you buy something through our links, we may earn a commission.

Top Fares From