They are also one of the most fragile. Increasingly, scientists are finding evidence that common, consumer sunscreens can negatively impact coral reefs.

Certain chemicals in sunscreens have been linked to coral disease, coral bleaching, and stunted coral growth. When you consider that an estimated 4,000 – 6,000 tons of sunscreen are deposited in reef areas each year, it’s no wonder that all these chemicals are wreaking environmental havoc.

It is beneficial for us and our reefs to use sunscreen that is not harmful and to spread awareness in every way we can.


So what’s a person to do?

The first step is understanding the basics of sunscreen. Sunscreens prevent the sun’s ultraviolet (UV) radiation from reaching the skin through a combination of natural and chemically-derived ingredients.

There are two types of UV radiation that affect human skin: UVA and UVB. UVA rays penetrate deep into the skin and are linked to aging (wrinkles), skin damage, and skin cancer.

These types of rays are more common than UVB rays and are present throughout the year. UVB rays, on the other hand, are more intense during summer months and between the hours of 10am-4pm. They tend to cause more damage to the surface of the skin and are responsible for sunburns, skin reddening, and skin cancer.

Sunscreens protect your skin by using two main active ingredients: Physical barriers and Chemical barriers.

Sunscreen Turtle

While most sunscreens are a combination of the two, a sunscreen’s composition will dictate its impact on both humans and the environment. Physical barrier sunscreens, also known as mineral sunscreens, are those that deflect the sun’s rays away from the skin. Active ingredients include titanium dioxide and zinc oxide – naturally occurring minerals that have been ground down into fine powders. Although physical barrier sunscreens tend to be tolerated by most skin types, they typically leave behind a white, chalky residue.

In contrast, chemical barrier sunscreens absorb UV rays before they reach your skin. Chemical barrier sunscreens are typically identified by active ingredients such as octinoxate and oxybenzone. While chemically-derived sunscreens rub in clear on your skin, they contain chemicals that have been linked to coral reef decline.

The majority of sunscreens contain four main chemical ingredients, three of which have been found to be harmful to coral reefs. Be wary of these chemicals in your sunscreen!



Oxybenzone (BP-3), Benzophenon (BP-2), and Octinoxate

These chemicals have been shown to negatively impact coral reefs and have been linked to hormone disruption, cell damage, and allergic reactions in mammals.



Butylparaben, Methylparaben, and Propylparaben

Parabens are often used as chemical preservatives. Some have been found to act as endocrine disruptors, and are also considered harmful to coral reefs.



Octyl methoxycinnamate and Cinoxate.

These are two of the most frequently used UVB absorbers in the United States and have been shown to negatively impact coral reefs.

Unfortunately, unverified certifications and labels can mislead consumers.


Consumers should know that the term “reef safe” is a marketing term – plain and simple. The label “reef safe” is in no way regulated by the FDA. Manufacturers can therefore label sunscreen “reef safe” even if it includes oxybenzone and octinoxate – two chemicals that are known to cause reef damage.

Biodegradable is another loosely regulated term, and there is no set industry standard as to what constitutes “biodegradable”. Sunscreens that are labeled biodegradable have likely undergone independent lab testing. You should check directly with the company if you are interested in learning more about their biodegradable certification.

With the launch of the Be Reef Safe campaign, we aim to eliminate misinformation and green washing. Be Reef Safe helps consumers buy products and adopt lifestyles that are truly sustainable for our coral reef ecosystems.

Just as label reading has become an important part of buying food, so too should it be an important part of buying sunscreen.

The only way to know if your sunscreen is really good for the environment and good for your body is to check the label. The best option is to choose sunscreens that list titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as the only active ingredients.

And don’t forget to check the inactive ingredients! Inactive ingredients should be derived from natural, plant-based sources like organic sunflower oil and organic beeswax. As always, be wary of ingredients that you can’t pronounce!


To truly Be Reef Safe with sunscreen and skin care, consumers need to adopt a holistic approach to sun protection.


This means to evaluate sun safety from a larger perspective than just slathering on sunscreen products. For example, do your best to avoid the sun between the hours of 10am-2pm when the sun is at its most intense. Another option is to wear long-sleeved shirts or a hat instead of applying sunscreen.

By being smart about sun safety and an informed consumer, you can ensure that you are making choices that are not only good for the environment, but also good for your family. Learn more from the 5 Ways to Safe Sun Protection.

Where to buy reef safe products?


Coral reefs are important to thousands of different species, from the smallest algae to gargantuan whales. But many coral reefs around the world are facing serious threats, from pollution to over fishing. We all play a critical role in protecting reefs, and luckily it’s easier than ever to Be Reef Safe. There are plenty of ways you can help the reef, even when you aren’t in the water. The following links and pages will help you on your way towards adopting and maintaining a reef-­safe attitude.