How do I Choose a Reef-Safe Sunscreen?

Common chemicals in sunscreen which protect us from harmful UV rays unfortunately threaten corals and other marine life! This has been in the media for a number of years now, but many people are still confused as to what they should look for. There are really two options: 1) look for ‘reef safe’ or an equivalent message on the bottle, or 2) read the ingredients and avoid the chemicals listed at the end of this blog! But first I want to mention a few reasons why we should all be using reef safe sunscreen.

Just a few examples of how chemicals in sunscreen may affect marine life, created by NOAA.

As you can see in the photo above, the harmful chemicals in many existing sunscreens can have a wide range of detrimental effects to marine species, in particular those found on coral reefs. Scientists believe that around 50% of coral has been lost in the last 30 years! As these coral reefs are home to 25% of known marine species, their loss will have catastrophic effects on huge numbers of animals. A healthy coral reef provides food, protection, and spawning grounds, and as with all life, the coral that forms these vast structures is in a constant state of growth, repair, and replenishment. Chemicals in sunscreen have shown the highest toxicity in early developing coral colonies. Not only may it result in damage to their DNA and abnormal growth, but it may increase susceptibility to bleaching and so result in coral death. Abnormal growth may present itself as deformities in some animals but can cause lack of reproductivity and even sex change in some fish species!

What can I do if I can’t find reef safe sunscreen?

The simplest way to protect yourself and marine species would be to seek shade in the hottest parts of the day when the UV rays are strongest, generally between 10 am and 2 pm. Of course, this is not always possible, so another option is to wear protective clothing, especially those labelled as UPF (ultraviolet protection factor). Please also remember that even if you do find the right sunscreen, you must still wait at least 15 minutes after applying before jumping in the ocean, or it will simply wash right off!

It is also important to note two other factors; firstly, that many of the most harmful chemicals to avoid in sunscreen are actually in a lot of toiletries and cosmetics. Secondly, swimming in the ocean is not the only way that these toxic chemicals can harm marine life. Wastewater from every city, town, village, and human settlement of any kind can flush these pollutants into rivers or groundwater, or in some cases directly through pipes, all of which reaches the ocean. Therefore, we recommend that you check the ingredients of all your products before you purchase and choose carefully, as many of the chemicals used can have detrimental effects to humans too!

There are many reef-safe sunscreen brands available now – take your pick!

As promised, see below for the list of crazy-named chemicals to avoid when choosing your next sunscreen:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate  
  • Octocrylene
  • Ethylhexyl
  • Methoxycinnamate
  • Benzophenone
  • Avobenzone
  • Cyclopentasiloxane
  • Cyclomethicone
  • OD-PABA (Aminobenzoic acid)
  • Enzacamene
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor
  • 3-Benzylidene camphor
  • Nano-Titanium dioxide
  • Nano-Zinc oxide

Please note if titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are ‘normal’ rather than ‘nano’ they are safe!

At the Marine Education Centre, we are always developing new awareness materials which will help to protect marine life. A poster and digital infographic regarding reef safe sunscreen are just one example of these. If you wish to support our work, please do not hesitate to contact us at, and if you have the means, please consider donating to our amazing team of women scientists to support their work during this pandemic:

You can also follow our work and awareness campaigns on our social media page:

Jenni Choma is a marine biologist based at the Marine Education Centre since its opening. Her main aim is to use marine education and research to bring about conservation of the marine environment.

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