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6 Best Reef Safe Sunscreens

Written by: Hendrik

Category: Lifestyle, Health

Updated on:


You got your boardies on, the surfboard is waxed, and you made sure you are hydrated; oh, there is sunscreen. But which is the best reef safe sunscreen for your face? 

Most of the time, you will wear a rash vest, especially when you go out surfing, but when it’s windy, you go kitesurfing. If you are anything like me, don’t wear a rash vest. Nonetheless, you and I both need to guard our pretty faces. Do you want to carry two different types of sunscreen? One for your face and one for the body? I didn’t think so.

What do sunscreen and zero waste have in common?

Most sunscreen comes in plastic tubes; remember, only 9 % of plastic is recycled. We don’t want to add more to this statistic. Going for sunscreen that is packaged in aluminum cans is the best option.

Aluminum is highly recyclable, and 2/3 are still in use.

Which is the best reef safe sunscreen so I can enjoy my favorite sport, knowing I don’t harm the ocean beneath me? 

There are so many varieties that it’s hard to choose the right one. Hence the reason for this article together. So you can make a quick and easy decision, get back in the water and away from the computer.

The problem with sunscreen.

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90% of sunscreens are taking a severe toll on the environment, contributing to bleaching and, ultimately, the death of coral. While sunscreen isn’t the only contributor to the dying reefs worldwide, it is easy to stop. 

“85 percent of Caribbean reefs have disappeared in the past 50 years,” says Dr. Craig Downs, lead author of the 2015 paper and executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. “99 percent of the reefs in the Florida Keys have disappeared in the same amount of time, and 40 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has disappeared in the past 30 years.” ~ sierra club

It is easy because the ingredients are written on the back. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are the two main ingredients causing our coral reefs to bleach and die. They are used to 3-6 % in some sunscreen, which is very high. 

Interestingly, you are harming coral reefs when you swim or surf in the ocean, and sunscreen washes off. But whenever you take a shower or wash sunscreen off your face, it runs down the drain and eventually ends up in the ocean. A staggering 14.000 tons of sunscreen enter the sea each year. 

Doesn’t that sound like a lot? Well, get this, toxicity occurs even at a concentration equivalent to about one drop of water in an Olympic-size swimming pool.

Why should you even care about sunscreen?

Some people claim they don’t get sunburn. I often wondered if mother nature created us, then surely we would be fine in the sun. Then again, that also depends on the pigments of your skin. I am white, and I turn red like a shrimp if I spend too much time under the Australian sun.

surfer under board 1

But you can take a few steps to reduce the risk of sunburn. 

  • Stay out of the midday sun
  • Cover up with long, bright, light clothes
  • Wear a hat 
  • Carry an umbrella
  • Don’t sunbake (it’s called bake for a reason, right?)

But sure, I also know that when the surf’s up, the surf is up, and nothing will stop you from catching these waves or kiting through the midday sun. In that case, I use a natural mineral sunscreen with the main ingredient being zinc dioxide. 

What makes the best reef-safe sunscreen?

A good sunscreen should protect you from UVA and UVB rays, and it should be easily applied and not contain any toxins. Your skin is the biggest organ, and whatever you put on it will be absorbed. The ingredients should be few, and they should not contain…

UV filters with High toxicity concerns ( avoid)

  1. Oxybenzone also is known as benzophenone-3 and BP-3
  2. Octinoxate (Octyl methoxycinnamate)

UV filters with medium toxicity concern 

  1. Homosalate
  2. Octiosalate
  3. Octocrylene

UV filters with low toxicity concern

  1. Titanium dioxide
  2. Zinc oxide (best)
  3. Avobenzone
  4. Mexoryl SX

Resource: EWG

What is SPF?

SPF stands for Sun Protection Factor and measures how well a sunscreen protects against UVA and UVB rays. 

The SPF number tells you how long it will take until you look like a roasted chicken. When you apply SPF 30, it will take 30 times longer to become toast. When you choose SPF 50, it will take 50 times longer, and so on.

Does a higher number mean better protection?

The EWG and the skin cancer foundation claim that 50 SPF blocks about 98% of the UVB radiation while 30% blocks about 97%, which is insignificantly small. This might also encourage you to stay longer in the sun, upping your risk for burns and skin cancer. 

The best is to choose an SPF number between 15 – 50.

There also might be the risk of getting a big load of UVA radiation since it doesn’t state how well it protects these rays. SPF is only for UVB.

What are UVA and UVB?

We apply sunscreen to our skin to protect us from ultraviolet light, which is invisible to the human eye because it has a shorter wavelength than we can see. Like sounds, there is a spectrum we can hear; for example, a dog whistle makes no sound to our ears but to the dogs. 

The same goes for the sunlight. We can not see the UVA and UVB spectra, but we can feel them once we have spent too much time in the sun.

Within the UV spectrum, two types of rays can damage your skin cells’ DNA. The best reef-safe sunscreen is said to protect your skin from both classes:

  • UVB rays are shorter, cause sunburn, and play a key role in developing skin cancer. A sunscreen’s SPF number refers mainly to the amount of UVB protection it provides.
  • UVA rays penetrate the skin, causing long-term damage like wrinkles and aging. The shortest wavelengths of UVA rays also contribute to sunburn. It’s essential to look for the words “broad spectrum” on the label, which means the product has ingredients that can protect you from UVAs and UVBs.

Sunscreen protects you from the sun’s UV rays by absorbing, deactivating, degrading, and reflecting the rays.

It’s important to remember that SPF only protects against UVB rays; those are the rays causing the “reddening” or surface burns. SPF doesn’t account for UVA rays; those are the rays that cause long-term damage, including aging and wrinkles.

Mineral Sunscreen VS Chemical Sunscreen

Mineral Sunscreen uses zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to create a barrier to the sun rays, and they reflect off of your skin. You can apply minerals on top of other skincare products. 

Chemical sunscreen lets the UV light into the skin, converting the rays with chemical substances into heat. The heat then dissipates from the surface.

Sunscreen Spray VS Sunscreen Lotion

As convenient as sprays may seem, the FDA has already determined they are a fire hazard. Yes, they are flammable and questionable to use because of the chances of inhaling the fumes. Furthermore, the FDA is currently undergoing a test of the health issues these sprays can cause. 

The best practice is to use creams. Yes, it might take you a little longer, but you can tell how much sunscreen you have applied and unless you confuse it with mayonnaise, the likelihood of you or anyone else ingesting it is minimal.

Reapplying your reef safe sunscreen is critical!

If you want complete protection from your sunscreen, it is recommended to reapply your sunscreen every 90 minutes or after swimming, sweating, and drying yourself off with a towel. 

Here are my top sunscreens for you. I have ranked them by the quality of the product and the amount of packaging used, and whether or not it is recyclable. I am still the zerowasteman, after all. 

The top favorites come in metal containers because it’s metal, and you can recycle them.

This is how I categorized the best reef safe sunscreens for surfers:

My criteria for these sunscreens are:

  1. Ingredients
  2. Reef Safe
  3. Value
  4. Water-Resistant
  5. SPF
  6. Broad Spectrum
  7. Packaging

Here is the list of the best reef safe sunscreen

1. Raw Elements

Image: Raw Elements
  • 10 Ingredients
  • Non-nano zinc oxide 23%
  • SPF 30
  • Broad Spectrum
  • 4.5 out of 5 stars

Price: $18.99

2. Surf Yogis

Image: SurfYogis
  • 6 Ingredients
  • Zinc sunscreen
  • SPF unclear
  • Broadspectrum?
  • 3 out of 5 stars

Price: $24.95

3. Manda

Image: Manda
  • 8 Ingredients, all organic
  • Thanaka is the main ingredient, Moisturizing, anti-inflammatory, and anti-aging properties.
  • Non-nano zinc oxide 20%
  • SPF 50
  • Broadspectrum (no info)

Price: $28

4. Allgood

Image: Allgood
  • 6 Ingredients
  • Non-nano zinc oxide 25%
  • SPF 50
  • Broadspectrum yes
  • 5 out of 5 stars

Price: $9.99

5. EIR

Image: EIR
  • 6 Ingredients
  • contains TOCOPHERYL ACETATE may cause allergies
  • SPF 30
  • Non-nano zinc oxide
  • Broadspectrum?
  • 2 out of 5 stars

Price: $24

6. Yeahbah

sunscreen stick
Image: Yeahbah

Use code Yeahbah for 20% off

  • SPF 25
  • Tinted Facestick
  • 5 Ingredients
  • Non-nano zinc oxide 20%

Price: $15


This is my winning list of reef safe sunscreen for every budget.


The best reef-safe sunscreen on my list is Raw Elements USA.

  • cheapest
  • USDA certified organic
  • certified natural

I didn’t give it a 5 out of 5 rating since it has more ingredients than the other sunscreens, but it ticks all the boxes apart from that.


The second place goes to AllGood sunscreen.

  • second cheapest
  • organic ingredients


The third place goes to Manda.

  • pricey
  • all organic

I have used surfyogis myself, and I love it, sadly, I couldn’t get a lot of information from their website. I still think it is a great product and totally safe to use.

Get 15% off of your order with my code zerowasteman15

Note: minimum order of $24.

Another note: These are my and only my opinions, and are designed to help you make an intelligent purchase towards your zero waste lifestyle. Yes, reef-safe sunscreen should be part of this package. All of these brands have a very high standard and create quality products.

If you are still reading this, buy the one you think suits you and get out in the water. You can keep reading my blog when you get back from surfing.

Photo of author

Hendrik Kaiser

I've studied biology and lived for 3 years on an off-grid permaculture farm. I love kitesurfing and keeping my body healthy and fit. Hence, I care so much about keeping our environment clean and being as zero waste as possible. Being a zerowasteman is a superpower everyone has inside of themselves, and I want to teach you how you can unleash it.

6 thoughts on “6 Best Reef Safe Sunscreens”

  1. Awesome article! I’m surprised how toxic sunscreen is. I guess it makes sense when I think about all the millions and billions of people dumping it on their skin, going swimming, then repeating. Great info here

    To be honest, I never used any sunscreen growing up, but I’m from up north next to Canada hah, so I guess the sun was never too much of a concern for me

    I’m definitely going to check out these eco-friendly sunscreens – for the reefs!


  2. Hi! Wow I had no idea how damaging sunscreens were to our coral reefs. Yikes! That is an eye opener. I always try to use more natural sunscreens when I can, if any at all. I’m also guilty of not reapplying it. Thank you for this reminder and this great list of safe sunscreens. Will definitely be trying one of them out come summer time!

  3. Hi Hendrik, great post on the best reef safe sunscreens! This is such an important issue, not only for the health of coral reefs, but also for the health of our skin. I didn’t take skin care very seriously until the last year or so, when I noticed more sun damage on my skin. I really like the options you provided, especially the raw elements products. As always, thanks for a very informative article on reef safe and environmentally friendly sunscreens!


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