By now, it is a truth universally acknowledged that you need to be wearing sunscreen every day, rain or shine. But a lesser-known fact is that while sunscreens are crucial for protecting your skin health, runoff from chemical sunscreens do the exact opposite to the coral reefs.
“Eighty-five percent of the Caribbean coral reefs died before 1999 or 2000. That wasn’t global warming. It’s pollution,” Dr. Craig A. Downs, Ph.D., executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, recently told Travel + Leisure. Studies conducted by Dr. Downs and other researchers support that claim in spades. Oxybenzone in particular contributes to coral bleaching, damages coral DNA, and can severely impair the healthy growth of baby coral. Other main culprits include octinoxate, avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, benzophenone-2, parabens, nano-titanium dioxide, and nano-zinc oxide, all of which can be harmful to marine life.
Your safest course of action is to opt for a mineral or physical sunscreen. Unlike chemical sunscreens, which absorb UV rays (and contain those environmentally risky substances), mineral sunscreens get their protective powers from non-nano zinc oxide. Zinc sits on top of the skin and reflects harmful UV rays, so it won’t absorb into your bloodstream—or cause harmful chemical runoff. And as a welcome bonus, zinc is a natural anti-inflammatory, so these sunscreens are the safest choice for people with sensitive, reactive, and acne-prone skin.
Better yet, take the guesswork out of your search entirely and opt for one of the five sunscreens listed ahead, all of which come from cruelty-free brands. These sunscreens are completely free of oxybenzone, octinoxate, or any of those other, sneaky chemicals, so they’re guaranteed to be safe for the environment. Equally important, they do a gorgeous job of keeping your skin soft, smooth, and protected.
1. Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian Natural Zinc Sunscreen SPF 50
A total cult favorite, Kokua Hawaiian Natural Zinc Sunscreen is made by a small, independently owned, Hawaii-based company. An impressive 25% non-nano zinc oxide content provides broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection, and an equally impressive 23 antioxidants (seven of which are locally sourced) help protect your skin from environmental aggressors. It’s free of synthetic additives like parabens and phthalates, so it’s extra-safe for people with sensitive and reactive skin.
2. Thinksport Sunscreen SPF 50+
This Thinksport sunscreen is a great choice if you’re swimming or working out under the sun, since it’s water-resistant, non-greasy, and non-comedogenic. This is also ideal if you have oily skin, thanks to skin-safe dimethicones that keep excess oil at bay. Of course, it’s totally reef-safe, too—it contains 20% non-nano zinc oxide, and no biologically and environmentally harmful additives (like avobenzone, oxybenzone, parabens, phthalates, and SLES) to speak of.
3. Badger Clear Zinc Sunscreen SPF 30
When it comes to officially “clean” sunscreens, Badger Clear Zinc sunscreen has a lot going for it: It’s been certified by relevant national organizations as biodegradable, cruelty-free, gluten-free, and containing 98% organic and 100% non-GMO ingredients. Beyond those impressive qualifications, it’s equally impressive in its efficacy, comfort, and skin-enhancing benefits. Sunflower oil and vitamin E give the consistency its smooth blendability, while sea buckthorn extract helps quell redness and inflammation. Just keep in mind that the formula contains beeswax, so it’s not vegan.
4. Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer Physical Daily Defense Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 30
If you’re looking for a reef-safe sunscreen for your face, you won’t find one much better (or more beloved) than Drunk Elephant Umbra Sheer sunscreen. In addition to 20% zinc oxide for sun protection, the formula is spiked with antioxidant-rich algae and sunflower sprout extracts, which help brighten and even out your complexion. And like all Drunk Elephant products, it’s free of common irritants like silicones, fragrances, parabens, phthalates, and essential oils. It’s perfectly pH balanced to protect your skin barrier, and formulated to work wonders on all skin types.
5. Supergoop! PLAY 100% Mineral Spray SPF 30
Lots of sunscreen sprays that claim to be reef-safe still actually contain chemical UV blockers, since chemicals can help with the sheer blendability that sunscreen sprays are known for. But this Supergoop! sunscreen is really, truly, 100% mineral-based. Along with 12% zinc oxide, it’s infused with skin-soothers like aloe, calendula, and chamomile extracts, while jojoba ester and sunflower seed oil provide moisture and nourishment. Reviewers say it sprays easily, blends beautifully, and it’s safe for allergy-prone skin.