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The Ultimate Guide to Reef Safe Sunscreen

The Ultimate Guide to Reef Safe Sunscreen

Hi, I’m Michelle, but you can call me Mosh. I’m here to tell you about how you can save the planet and cure climate change without any superpowers. Well, ok, not really. But I am here to tell you about reef safe sunscreen and about how making just one small switch can make a world of difference.

But first, a little bit about my background. I live in Australia. You know, the place that’s close to the equator, has astronomical skin cancer rates and resides under a giant hole in the ozone? Yeah, that place.

Cancer rates in Australia are f*cked. Two in three Australians will be diagnosed with skin cancer in their lifetime, placing Australia on the world leader board for skin cancer rates (not really something we want a trophy for).  

There are a bunch of reasons why this is, and a lot of it has to do with how misinformed we are. The reason why we are having major issues with our skin health is because we don’t know how to protect it properly.

Studies have shown that 85% of Aussies don’t apply enough sunscreen, they don’t wait the 20 minutes before going out in the sun and they don’t believe it’s safe to wear every day due to harsh chemicals.

Another reason why us Aussies are struggling to protect our skin, is because we want to protect our reef and marine life as well. And unfortunately, with a lot of products out there, it can be pretty hard to do.

Hawaii recently banned some key ingredients in sunscreen that are known to damage coral reefs (despite being FDA approved). This is important, because around 4000-6000 tons of sunscreen enter our oceans each year and if we aren’t careful with the products we use, there won’t be a reef for much longer.

We all want to learn how to travel more sustainably, be more mindful with our choices and reduce our impact, and a great way to start is by making the switch.

So, what is this switch? It’s simple, just by making the move to reef safe sunscreen you can support the longevity of our oceans, while still protecting your skin from sunburn and nourishing your body–all at the same time.

Let me show you how.

arial view of the blue ocean, shoreline and people scattered on Coogee Beach, Australia

What Exactly is the Meaning of Reef Safe Sunscreen?

If you live by the beach like me, the term reef safe sunscreen is thrown around everywhere, but what does it actually mean?

Well, it’s more than a marketing buzzword. It’s a sunscreen that doesn’t contain some key chemical nasties that have been proven to have a detrimental impact on coral reefs.

While some of the harmful ingredients are safe for us humans to use for sun protection, our reef can struggle. Having these active ingredients can result in damage like coral bleaching, and coral death.

Outside of chemical nasties, the particle size of the components in sunscreen also have an impact. If a sunscreen contains nanoparticles (particles that are under 100 nanometres in diameter) it can be easily absorbed by the reef, causing damage.

Non-nano sunscreen, on the other hand, means that the particles in the lotion can’t be absorbed by the reef, preventing long term damage.  

The unfortunate truth is there is still a lot we don’t know about protecting our reef, but what we do know is that making the switch to reef safe sunscreen is a step-change in the right direction. 

red and yellow coral in the ocean

Reef Safe Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid

So, what are these chemical nasties I’m talking about?

Well, the big two active ingredients to avoid are oxybenzone and octinoxate. These ingredients are found in what is called a chemical sunscreen.

Chemical sunscreen protects your skin by absorbing into your body and chemically converting UV rays into heat which then leaves the body. It is a chemical reaction that occurs inside of our bodies, not just on our skin.

This is different to physical sunscreen that sits on top of the skin and acts as a physical shield to reflect UV rays for sun protection (I’ll talk a bit more about this type of sunscreen later).

Oxybenzone is one of the most common ingredients in FDA approved sunscreen as it’s one of the most effective in protecting us from UV exposure. The ingredient is known to penetrate the skin and facilitate other ingredients to penetrate the skin too.  

Octinoxate and octocrylene also absorb through the skin, like oxybenzone, these ingredients are known to have a direct impact on our reefs, destroying them through coral bleaching. Oh, and it’s not just reefs that are impacted when we wear these chemicals, it’s any lakes, rivers, waterfalls–pretty much any body of water will be contaminated with whatever we have on our skin.

Silicone ingredients like cylcopentasiloxane and cyclomethicone are found in some sunscreens. They have been shown to bio-accumulate on marine life in our oceans.

Avobenzone, is also a benzophenone like Oxybenzone, absorbs through the skin, increasing risk of free radicals and increased risk of skin cancer. Sunscreens can also contain cancerous parabens through hormone mimicry.

All these ingredients are also pretty shit for our bodies, too, often showing up in urine and breast milk testing. They are known to disrupt our endocrine system responsible for producing hormones that regulate metabolism, growth and development. The use of these chemical ingredients has been linked to cancer, birth defects and developmental disorders.

What’s worse is this list doesn’t cover it all. For more information, the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory has a super informative list of chemicals, parabens and preservatives to steer clear from.

One last thing, it’s not an ingredient but as I mentioned before, steer clear of any sunscreens that contain nano particles as well. I’d be weary of any aerosols or spray sunscreen because they tend to contain nanoparticles (but not all, you’ll need to do some digging). 

an underwater statue with a diver swimming behind in Bali, Indonesia

Reef Safe Sunscreen Ingredients That Benefit Your Skin

So we know chemical sunscreens aren’t good for our bodies or for the reef. Physical sunscreen, however creates a blocker that doesn’t need to be absorbed into the skin in order for it to work. This means that you don’t get all those awful risks associated with chemical sunscreens.  

Mineral based sunscreen, a type of physical sunscreen often contains a lot of stuff that’s nice for your skin. Dermatologists have long recommended the benefits of mineral sunscreen for skincare while protecting you from sunburn.

Non-nano zinc oxide is a common ingredient found in reef safe sunscreen. Zinc helps prevent damaged skin tissue and scarring and can leave your skin feeling rejuvenated and fresh.

Zinc is actually found naturally in the ocean so it’s safe for your next snorkelling trip, Just make sure it’s a non-nano zinc oxide as research tells us that even the smallest amount of zinc oxide nanoparticles can severely impact the development of sea life. This is why it’s important to always read the ingredients and make sure you know what you’re buying (marketing can be sneaky sometimes).

Another great ingredient found in reef safe sunscreen is Titanium dioxide. It’s the reef friendly version of sun lotion as it protects the skin from UVA and UVB without absorption and chemical reaction. It’s a mineral based physical blocker that protects you and the reef.

Titanium Dioxide is a gentle ingredient, meaning it works well for those of you with sensitive and irritation-prone skin. Plus, it doesn’t sting the eyes the way chemical sunscreens do, keeping your skin trauma free and fresh.  

surf durt reef safe sunscreen

So, What Are the Best Reef Safe Sunscreens in 2020?

Surf Durt (USA)

Run by Max and Nikki, these girls are our American partners at Wakeful Travel. We only ever partner with brands we love and trust, that know what they’re doing and that do what they say.

Surf Durt is just that–it’s the sunscreen lotion that does what it’s supposed to do. Surf Durt has been created with the safest and best quality active ingredients as well as natural antioxidants for maximum protection and least harm.

The sunscreen is SPF 30, made with 100% organic materials, is produced locally and comes in a bamboo reusable container lined with aluminium centre with 3 different colours to choose from. Oh, and did I mention that the sunscreen is also manufactured using solar power!?

This UVA/UVB broad spectrum sunscreen has no nasties, is cruelty-free and supports local. It’s a safe ethical decision that will serve our oceans and our bodies. It’s durable, making it a perfect surf sport sunscreen.

It’s by far the best option for shoppers based in mainland USA. You can pick it up on the Wakeful Travel shop.

Mama Kuleana (USA)

This Hawaiian based brand has it all in their name – Kuleana means to “accept responsibility with diligence and intent”. And I just love that.

Their mineral based, water resistant SPF 30 sunscreen lotion contains absolutely zero toxins for humans and sea life. It also comes in 100% biodegradable jars, which means when you shop with them you can be confident that you are making the most conscious choice.

Outside of being a conscious choice, Mama Kuleana is great for your skin too. The sunscreen contains non-nano zinc oxide, which as we know, keeps your skin replenished and healthy while protecting you from UV rays.

Other ingredients include rosehip seed oil and vitamin E oil, both of which moisturise and smooth your skin, while reducing hyperpigmentation and wrinkles. What’s more is that rosehip oil is a great remedy for scarring or wounds due to its richness in fatty acids and antioxidants.

People4Ocean (AU)

Australians are experts when it comes to protecting ourselves from the sun. That’s how you know this 100% Australian made and owned sunscreen brand knows what’s up.

From the ingredients, to practice, to paying it forward, People4Ocean considers their impact on every level.

The organic mineral creams are safe for all skin types, from dogs to babies, ranging from SPF 30 to 50, protecting you from harsh UV rays.

They manufacture using sustainable practices like solar power, they have plant-based packaging that smells like the Australian outback and best of all, proceeds sunscreen purchases go directly to not-for-profit initiatives aimed at the protection and restoration of coral reefs worldwide.

The Green Beaver (Canada)

The Green Beaver has an awesome selection of all-natural mineral sunscreens that are super reef friendly.

Using ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, their creams provide a harm-free physical sun barrier. Their non-greasy formula protects and restores your skin using 100% naturally sourced and organic ingredients like sunflower seed oil and beeswax. Both sunflower seed oil and beeswax are great to help prevent dry skin that comes from sun damage while also being a natural anti-inflammatory.

Amazinc Sunscreen (EU)

For our European friends, Amazinc Sunscreen from Czech Republic has some great options.

They have perfected their mineral lotion so not only is it water resistant, and protects your skin without any harsh chemicals, but the cream’s texture is smooth and easy to apply.

Amazinc has a great range, from mineral sunscreen, to reef-friendly tanning oil, body and hand butter, body oils and sun sticks. They use great ingredients for your skin like almond and jojoba oil, which help with balancing sebum production, reducing dark circles and smoothing overall complexion.

The creams come in 100% recyclable super lightweight aluminium bottles making them a prefect travel companion for your summer holidays.

Reef Repair (Asia)

Based out of Thailand, Reef Repair is one of the most quality reef safe sunscreens on the market. Backed by a mission to provide the world’s most effective reef safe sun care products using 100% all-natural ingredients, Reef Safe never compromises on quality or safety.

Their story started out of frustration that they could not import a quality reef safe sunscreen that their divers were willing to use because of the thick, white slather that reef safe sunscreens can leave behind.

To change this, they trialled 42 different batches of creams before they finally found their perfect product. Their sunscreen has no whitening effect when applied, isn’t oily, or sticky and ticks all the boxes when it comes to anti-harm. Not to mention it’s SPF 50 so you know you’ll be protected. 

What if I’m a Poor Millennial and Want to Find a Reef Safe Sunscreen at Walmart or Target?

Look, I get it. While Amazon a-hole Jeff Bezos made a cheeky 75mil during COVID, a lot of us millennials struggled to make ends meet.

It’s the worst, you do your reading, you know what you have to do to be conscious of the environment and for yourself, but when it comes down to counting pennies, the price point of a good reef friendly sunscreen can be a real deterrent.

It’s not always economically or situationally possible to invest in creams (I mean, hello, living is unaffordable as it is!). So, I have some tips to help you find the best reef safe sunscreens at Target or Walmart (but no Amazon, because Bezos has had his pocket money for the year).

The Target website has a search section that allows you to refine your results by ‘health facts’. This means that you can tick areas like “oxybenzone-free”, ‘paraben-free” and “mineral based”. Once you have done so, you can simply pick a sunscreen within your price range and check the ingredients to confirm they are free of reef harming chemicals and nanoparticles.

I suggest grabbing the All Good Zinc Sunscreen Butter (SPF50+). It’s a non-nano zinc oxide physical sunscreen that doesn’t contain chemicals that harm the reef. It’s water resistant, biodegradable, coral reef friendly and only $7.99! 

Other contenders for the best sunscreen from Target are Thinksport and Bare Republic. Sun Bum might show up on your list, but even though it doesn’t contain oxybenzone, it does contain octinoxate, which can be harmful.

Walmart has a ‘reef safe’ section on their website, making it much easier to navigate without worrying about accidentally purchasing a chemical sunscreen. Again, always check the ingredients and try to do external research before purchasing.

I recommend Rocket Pure Natural 3 oz SPF 30 Sunscreen. It has broad spectrum UVA and UVB protection, with non-nano mineral zinc oxide and openly mentions on the product description that there are no chemicals like oxybenzone or octinoxate. This comes in at $15.95

Two other strong contenders from Walmart are Badger and Babo Botanicals which both have great reef friendly options at a decent price.

Girl looking down at the Ultimate Packing List in the Mindful Travel Journal

Pair Your New Sunscreen with a Wakeful Travel Journal

Whether it’s a gift for a conscious friend or you’re looking to treat yourself for your next trip away, why not bundle up your eco-friendly summer toolkit on the Wakeful Travel website.

Now you’ve got your sunscreen, document your wonderful trip with the Wakeful Travel Journal. The mindful travel journal that guides you through your life of adventure, no matter the size of your trip.

The Wakeful Journal teaches you all about how to get the most out of your trips, while also living mindfully, ethically and sustainably along the way.

It doesn’t matter the size of the journey, whether it’s a 3-month vagabond through Southeast Asia or an extended weekend away in your state or province, this journal is an essential tool to manifest a transcendental experience.  

Making ethical purchase decisions like these may not change the world in a day, but it is moving us closer to a better world each and every time you make one.

Just take it one conscious step at a time.


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