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reef safe sunscreen

Safe for skin and sea: a guide to clean sunscreens

Summer is here and, with lockdowns starting to ease, many of us will be hitting the waves. Whether we’re surfing, swimming, or just splashing around, we know that protecting our skin from the sun before we dive in is essential – but not all sunscreens are created equal. Let’s look at why and find reef-safe sunscreens.

Many SPF products (read: at least 3,500) harness toxic chemicals, namely octinoxate and oxybenzone. Just one drop of oxybenzone can toxify 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools! As you can imagine, this equals catastrophe for our oceans. Oxybenzone damages the DNA of corals, increasing their susceptibility to bleaching and killing their offspring. Additionally, oxybenzone has been found to cause neurological behaviour changes and reproductive diseases in marine animals. It’s believed that between 6,00014,000 tonnes of sunscreen is washed off into coral reef environments every year, which leaves us with a devastating reality.

Coral reefs are currently having a terrible time

According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the longest and most widespread event of coral bleaching is currently underway, which spells disaster for people (many communities rely on the reefs for food, medicine, and livelihoods) and the surrounding marine ecosystems. Around 19 percent of the world’s coral reefs have disappeared and, if we continue down this path, all of them could be extinct with the next 100 years. Climate change factors such as increasing water temperatures are the main reason behind the decline, but human factors also contribute significantly. Hawaii, Aruba, and Palau, among other nations, know how true this is and have banned oxybenzone after seeing what it has done to their reefs. In 2015, oxybenzone was identified as dangerous to reefs, but many brands continue to use it.

What about human health?

Yeah, oxybenzone fails there, too. Sunscreens with oxybenzone contain chemicals that absorb the UV rays from the sun, meaning oxybenzone may stop your skin from burning, but it still filters into your body (and, often, bloodstream). Research found that when pregnant women are exposed to it, it can lead to a birth defect called Hirschsprung’s disease, affecting the development of nerve cells in the large intestine. The chemical has been found in the urine and breast milk of mothers, and it’s also an endocrine disruptor, meaning it can mimic hormones and cause all kind of health havoc.

The alternative is simple: mineral sunscreens.

Most contain totally natural zinc oxide (early India’s main form of sun protection) or titanium dioxide. The pigments in these sunscreens act like a physical barrier, blocking UVA and UVB rays by sitting on top of the skin and reflecting them so your skin won’t absorb them. And, just as importantly, these sunscreens keep our oceans clean and our coral reefs unharmed.

Here are some brands you can rely on to keep you and the planet healthy.


All Good

Doing exactly what the name suggests, cosmetic company All Good offers a collection of clean, earth-friendly products. The brand has a solid selection of sunscreens (sports, tinted, lip balm, etc) and after-care lotions, all made with natural ingredients. Their sunscreen also features green tea and rosehip oil to give extra support to your skin and protect against the blue light (HEV) from technological screens. Even more impressive, All Good is part of the 1% for the Planet programme and is a certified B-Corp, certified cruelty-free, climate-neutral, and, of course, reef-safe.

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Goddess Garden

Goddess Garden was founded by husband-and-wife duo Paul and Nova, who have backgrounds in nutrition science and herbalism. The brand’s sun skincare is water-resistant, vegan, certified cruelty-free, reef-safe (the active ingredients are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide), and broad-spectrum (meaning it protects from both UVA and UBV rays). Goddess Garden also gives back via its foundation, Protect Our Mother, which is focused on preserving and restoring ocean habitat.

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Sun Bum

Inspired by the brand’s beachside community, Sun Bum focuses solely on sun protection, offering an array of products (sprays, lotions, cool-down products, scalp mists, lip balm) for any beachgoer. The company ensures that its products tick all of the boxes when it comes to being safe: broad-spectrum protection, hypoallergenic, cruelty-free, vegan, gluten-free, water-resistant, free from parabens and fragrances, and demagogically tested. Sun Bum’s SPF 50 face sunscreen contains vitamin E, to protect against premature ageing, and aloe vera, to soothe and calm. Sun Bum also has a sister brand, Baby Bum, which sells simple, gentle sun protection for little ones.

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Beauty by Earth

Beauty by Earth is big on leaving out the nasty stuff (think parabens, sulfates, phthalates and other dangerous, toxic ingredients) and calling on the good stuff, instead: zinc oxide, aloe vera, coconut oil, vitamin E, and a whole host of natural oils and extracts. The brand’s all-natural sunscreen formula is kid- and reef-safe, cruelty-free, USDA organic, environmentally sustainable, and made entirely in the USA. Oh, and Beauty by Earth has a number one rating from the Environmental Working Group.

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Babo Botanicals

Babo Botanicals is all about caring for sensitive skin. Its products are formulated to be safe for babies and adults alike, including its hypoallergenic, 100%-zinc sunscreen, which can be used on both body and face, and has won a slew of awards. The vegan B-corp was founded by Kate, a skincare product developer for big cosmetics brands such as L’Oreal. When she was pregnant, she realised how few safe, clean, and quality products there were for babies. Not only is Babo Botanicals certified by Made Safe (America’s first certification for nontoxic products), it’s also one of the founding brands behind the Sun Safety Coalition (formed by the Environmental Working Group).

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Raw Elements

Founded by former beach lifeguard Brian Guadragno, Raw Elements is a zero-waste, natural sun care brand providing protection to everyone from serious athletes to tots. Raw Elements’ sunscreens are waste-free (hello, reusable tin!), biodegradable, broad-spectrum, water-resistant, and contain 100% natural ingredients. They also come in a variety of forms – sticks, tubes, and tins – many of which are made from compostable materials and are plastic-free. Raw Elements is also in association with the Natural Products Association, the Non-GMO Project, 1% for the Planet, and the Environmental Working Group. While its products aren’t vegan (the sunscreens use beeswax), they are certified cruelty-free.

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This California-based brand offers up a variety of sun protection products, many of which come in stylish, bag-on valve aerosol cans (meaning they expel 100% of the product, use eco-friendly propellants, and can be recycled). Coola cares about our differences, so there’s an SPF for every skin type. You can also expect organic, natural, and sustainable ingredients, water and sweat resistance, broad-spectrum coverage, and the brand’s own Farm to Face formula, meaning all of the ingredients follow sustainable farming practices and support local communities. Showing its support of Hawaii’s oxybenzone ban, Coola also assures its customers that its products are Hawaii Reef Compliant.

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Named after the Norse goddess of healing, Eir (pronounced ‘air’) is the brainchild of Jun Lee, Montauk-based surfer, dancer, and herbalist. Lee wanted to offer products that were appropriate for active lifestyles, good for the environment, and therapeutic when it came to speeding up internal healing and ensuring external healing. Surf Mud, an SPF inspired by the Mayan chocolate mask, has been a hit with surfers since its creation. It’s clear why: it’s water-resistant, biodegradable, natural, effective, comes in a plastic-free reusable tin, and is shipped in biodegradable packaging.

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With over 15 years of experience in creating SPFs, Supergoop! is something of an expert when it comes to the most effective sun protection. The American brand has a long ‘No List’ containing over 1,600 ingredients it steers clear of (including oxybenzone, parabens, and animal derivatives), investing instead in natural ingredients. Its 100% Mineral line features an impressive collection of SPF products – powders, CC creams, mists, etc – for different body parts, skin types, occasions, and desired finishes. And every item comes in recyclable packaging. Supergoop! also runs Ounce by Ounce, working with parents and teachers to get SPF into US schools for children’s everyday use.

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Green People

British brand Green People was founded by Charlotte Vøhtz, a mum seeking organic skincare for her daughter who suffered from skin allergies. It creates cruelty-free cosmetic products free from harsh chemicals, fragrances, and any ingredients that might clog pores and lead to prickly heat. The company donates a portion of each sunscreen purchase to the Marine Conservation Society and works with the charity on highlighting the ecological dangers of sunscreen. All products arrive in recyclable, renewable sugar cane packaging, which is farmed on sustainable lane and completely carbon neutral.

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FEATURED IMAGE: via Unsplash IMAGE DESCRIPTION: a lady swimming in the ocean in a white swimsuit