Real Talk: Here's What Coral-Reef Safe Sunscreen Really Means

Sunscreen is undeniably the most important part of your daily beauty routine, full stop. Protecting your skin from harmful UVA and UVB rays is paramount; yes, even if it's raining or cloudy out or you're staying inside. However, it's important to know that not all sunscreen formulas are the same.

You may have noticed that some sunscreens have claims like "reef safe" or "reef friendly" on the packaging or in the product description. Of course, that sounds great, since some ingredients can cause damage to coral reefs like coral bleaching. But this labeling can actually be misleading.

Keep reading for a breakdown of what ingredients to stay away from and what to look for when finding a reef-safe SPF.

What Makes a Sunscreen Coral-Reef Safe?

Coral-reef safe means a formula is free from tiny particles that can contaminate the oceans and be damaging to the coral reefs. Many mineral sunscreen formulas are considered reef safe (more on that later), but to be totally sure your SPF is reef safe, you should go with straight-up zinc.

When it comes to what isn't reef safe, there are a few main ingredient contenders to be aware of — which are typically found in chemical sunscreens, which have been connected to coral reef deterioration. "The two main ingredients of concern are oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are thought to contribute to bleaching of the reefs," says dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, MD, Associate Professor of Dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. "Octocrylene is also thought to be harmful to both coral and fish."

And those aren't necessarily the only chemicals. Other potentially harmful additives include anything with -benzone (like avobenzone), homosalate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, PABA, triclosan microplastics (i.e. exfoliating beads), phthalates, parabens, high levels of titanium dioxide, and nanoparticles.

It's important to add that what reef safe truly means is evolving as scientists study ingredients and try to evaluate sunscreen's impact on aquatic life. And many of these studies are done in a lab not the ocean, so findings may not be completely accurate. It's also very important to keep in mind that the FDA doesn't regulate whether a formula is reef safe, and some experts feel that the reef-safe labeling is just marketing. So you should pay more attention to the ingredient list rather than a claim of reef safe on packaging.

Are All Mineral Sunscreens Coral-Reef Safe?

Not necessarily. They can have nanoparticles (particles that are less than 100 nanometers in diameter) of zinc or titanium dioxide, so always read the label. Basically, if the ingredient list doesn't explicitly say "micro-sized" or "non-nano" and it can rub in, it's probably nano-sized. "There are questions whether nano-particle mineral sunscreens can be damaging to sea life," explains Dr. Zeichner. So why are they even in formulations? In mineral sunscreens, they allow for a smooth application minimizing the white cast on skin.

If you want to find true-to-life reef-safe sunscreens, the state of Hawaii, which is the first US state to ban the sale of sunscreen containing the oxybenzone and octinoxate, has put together a comprehensive list here.

Are Non-Reef-Safe Sunscreens Ever OK to Use?

If you're not planning to get in to a natural body of water, you don't need to worry about wearing reef-safe sunscreen (however, it's important to note that the chemicals listed above could potentially be harmful to humans, but that's an article for another day). Other experts advise wearing protective clothing like rash guards when going in the ocean, so there's less exposed skin and therefore less surface area that needs sunscreen. "Until we have definitive data, some suggest the use of traditional, non-nano mineral sunscreens when swimming in the ocean," says Dr. Zeichner. "While it's important to protect our skin from harmful UV rays, we all need to be environmentally conscious to take care of the world that we live in." When in doubt, go with zinc.