Is Your Sunscreen Reef Safe?

Photo courtesy of Flickr Earthly Delights

Photo courtesy of Flickr Earthly Delights

Photo courtesy of Flickr Earthly Delights

The summer has begun out here on Maui and Trilogy is gearing up for our snorkeling trips around Maui and Lana’i. With weather typically in the mid 70’s F and intense sunshine, sunscreen comes to mind. There are many options out there for you to choose from and it can get overwhelming: all natural, biodegradable, eco-friendly, organic, reef safe, waterproof, creams, gels, spray....the list goes on. When traveling to the Hawaiian Islands and other tropical locations, there's a good chance you will jump into the big blue. Even if you have no plans to snorkel around coral reefs, you still make an impact on marine ecosystems. At a time when these fragile systems are experiencing one of the worst coral bleaching events on record, one of the most important thing to consider when choosing a sunscreen is, "Is it reef safe?"

Photo courtesy of Trilogy Excursions

Photo courtesy of Trilogy Excursions

Photo courtesy of Trilogy Excursions

A scientific study released in 2015 by Downs found oxybenzone to be harmful to coral larva inhibiting growth. When shopping for sunscreen, don't just read the label, read the ingredient list. No one is governing whether or not a product labeled as “reef safe” is in fact safe for our reefs. The following is a cheat sheet of the ingredients that have been shown to cause coral bleaching even at low levels:

  • Oxybenzone

  • Butylparaben

  • Octinoxate

  • 4-Methylbenzylidine Camphor

In general, any natural sunscreen (organic, biodegradable etc.) is better for the environment than a conventional one. Look for a brand that uses physical sunblocks such as titanium or zinc oxide instead of chemical ones. The jury is still out as to whether titanium and zinc oxide are truly reef safe. Both are mineral powders that some scientists claim settle on the ocean floor and block sunlight, but this belief does not seem to be widely accepted. If you want to decide between the two, zinc oxide is proven to block both UVA and UVB rays whereas titanium oxide primarily only blocks UVB rays.

So what can you do? Make sure to apply sunscreen at least 10-15 minutes before going in the water so that the lotion absorbs into your skin. You can also wear an SPF rash guard top and leggings to reduce the amount of sunscreen you put on your skin. Trilogy sells both long and short sleeve rash guards with UPF sun protection.

Photo courtesy of Trilogy Excursions

Photo courtesy of Trilogy Excursions

Photo courtesy of Trilogy Excursions

Here is a list of sunscreens I found to be reef safe:

Raw Love Sunscreen, SPF 35 (Made in Maui)

Deter Mineral Reef Safe Sunscreen, SPF 30

Maui Surfer Honey Natural Sunscreen, SPF 30 

Badger Sunscreen Cream, Unscented, SPF 30

Badger Broad Spectrum Sport Facestick, SPF 35

Joshua Tree Reef Safe Sunscreen SPF 30

Elemental Herbs Sport Sunscreen, SPF 30+

Green Screen D Organic Sunscreen, Original, SPF 35

BurnOut Ocean Tested Physical Sunscreen, SPF 30

All Terrain KidSport SPF30

Star Naturals Sunscreen Stick SPF 25


You can gather additional information from the National Park Service.

Downs, C. A., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Segal, R., Fauth, J., Knutson, S., Bronstien, O., Ciner, F. R., Jeger, R., Lichtenfeld, Y., Woodley, C. M., Pennington, P., Cadenas, K., Kushmara, A., Loya, Y. 2015. Toxicological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Arch. Environ. Contam. Toxicol.

Contributed By Conservation & Education Director Magen Schifiliti