Reef-Safe Sunscreen

August 25, 2020

Reef-Safe Sunscreen - ☀️

How to Protect Yourself and the Reef


By Lisa Goldenberg, Reef Check Australia Ambassador

Freediver Ocean lover Coffee drinker


We get to the beach, Slip! Slop! Slap!, and off we go. But what are we actually slopping on? Is it good for us? Is it good for the reef?

Perhaps you’re a weekend snorkeler or maybe an avid Reef Check surveyor. Maybe, like us, you marvel at the colours and shapes of the coral, stare in wonder at their vibrant forms and hues, become mesmerized by the fish swimming by too dazzling to believe. The stunning vast blue. The mystical depths that lure us to play and explore.

As ocean lovers, we want to enjoy the ocean responsibly. We don’t use single-use plastic, we don’t stand on or kick the coral, and we don’t want to leave a trail of harmful sunscreen in our wake.

While Queensland is home to the most beautiful reefs in the world, we are also known as the skin-cancer capital of the world. As we dive into the ocean and work to protect the reefs, we must also protect ourselves from the sun.

Sunscreens work by providing either a physical barrier or a chemical barrier from the sun’s harmful rays. In order for a reef to work, corals need access to the rays we are shielding ourselves from. Along with warm temperature, clean and clear saltwater, corals need sunlight to survive.

As we swim along enjoying the reef, it is estimated we leave behind up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen annually. This not only harms marine life but also covers the most popular reefs in tourist parks with a sunscreen sheen, blocking the sun from getting to the coral below. And even in extremely low concentrations, it’s been shown that sunscreens can cause rapid and complete bleaching of hard corals.

Image by Everyday California

Some marine parks, like Cozumel in Mexico, ban sunscreen outright. In those instances, a stinger suit or SPF rashie is your best bet. They cover and protect you while causing no harm to the reef. But usually, sunscreen is a must. And while no sunscreen is completely safe for coral and marine life, there are choices we can make to protect ourselves while minimizing the harm to the reef.

When choosing a sunscreen, ignore the marketing and sustainable-looking packaging.  Be wary of labels that claim the product is “reef safe,” because the question is: safe for whom? The term “reef safe” doesn’t have an agreed-upon definition, and isn’t strictly regulated by the government. And of course, companies that sell sunscreen are in the business of selling sunscreen.

And while the Cancer Council of Queensland recommends the use of water-resistant sunscreens with SPF 30 or higher, they don’t concern themselves with whether the sunscreen’s ingredients are harmful to the reef - or to our skin.

As reef lovers, it’s our responsibility to choose our sunscreen carefully. We must check the ingredients and look for ingredients that are safe - for both us and the reef.

Here’s what to avoid and what to look for:


🚫 Oxybenzone (also known as benzophenone-3) and octinoxate (also known as octyl methoxycinnamate). These chemicals have been proven to harm marine life and coral reefs and have been linked to hormone disruption, cell damage, and allergic reactions. In January, Palau became the first country to ban these chemicals. They are also banned in Hawaii, and several other tropical regions throughout the world. (Perhaps Queensland should do the same?)

🚫 Nanoparticles are so small they can enter our bloodstream. They are also absorbed by coral. They cause oxidative stress that may lead to cell damage, genotoxic effects, inflammatory responses, and changes in cell structure.

🚫 Parabens (Butylparaben, Methylparaben, and Propylparaben) are harmful to the reefs and have been found to act as endocrine disruptors.

🚫 Cinnamates (Octyl methoxycinnamate and Cinoxate) have been shown to negatively impact coral reefs.

Look for:

✅ Zinc oxide and/or Titanium dioxide sunscreens are mineral sunscreens. These physically block the sun’s rays and have not been shown harmful to the reefs. They are biodegradable and hypo-allergenic.

✅ “Non-nano” refers to particles larger than 100 nanometers and is considered safe for us and the reef.

✅ Water-resistant sunscreen helps keep the product on your skin and not wash off in the water.

✅ Wait at least 15 minutes after applying your sunscreen before entering the water so that your skin can absorb it and it won’t wash right off.


It’s our responsibility to do what we can to safeguard the health of the reefs that we love. How we act in the water and the products we introduce to it are our opportunity to do just that. 

What are your favorite sunscreens? Let us know what you recommend!


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