Summer Skin Care

All of the Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens to Keep You (and Ocean Life) Protected All Summer Long

Rachel Lapidos

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Photo: Getty Images/fotostorm

Ah, summer: The season where you get to frolic on the beach and take carefree dips in the beloved saltwater (which is actually good for your skin, BTW). But with the UV indexes soaring and sunscreen application top of mind, there’s a major issue that’s casting a cloud over beach days: Some ingredients in sunscreens are harming the ocean.

That’s exactly why you’ve been hearing everyone talk about reef-safe SPF right now, and why Hawaii recently became the first state to ban sunscreen filters that can harm coral reefs. Because what you wear when you’re taking a swim in the deep blue can actually have a huge impact on the ocean life.

According to a study published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, the chemical sunscreen filter oxybenzone (which has also been linked to endocrine disruption) can harm or kill coral by damaging the DNA, and it only takes a tiny amount to wreak this environmental havoc. Another study, published in Environmental Health Perspectives found that both oxybenzone and octinoxate (another sunscreen ingredient that’s used as a UVB filter in chemical-blocking sunscreens) lead to coral bleaching when they wash off into the ocean.

To keep ocean life happy, the key is to find an SPF that uses physical UVA and UVB filters (as opposed to the chemical ones that have been connected to coral reef deterioration). You’ll be able to find them by flipping the SPF tube over and looking for the active ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These ingredients form an actual physical block to shield skin from absorbing any rays (whereas chemical filters absorb UV and turn it into heat that’s released from skin).

“The term reef safe typically means that the sunscreen contains only mineral UV-blocking ingredients like oxide and titanium dioxide,” explains Joshua Zeichner, a board-certified dermatologist in New York City. “Both nano particle—a smaller particle size—and traditional zinc oxide sunscreens are both safe and effective, and both will be considered safe for reefs. The only difference is the cosmetic feel on the skin.” So you’re pretty much good to go with a mineral-based option.

So when you’re taking a dip in the deep blue, reach for your mineral sunscreen formulas to stay protected in the sun and to keep the ocean life protected, too.

Originally posted July 6, 2018, updated May 8, 2019.

You can also use some of these natural, moisturizing face sunscreens that don’t leave white streaks. And *this* is how to wear sunscreen under makeup.

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