Protect your skin and the ocean with these picks!

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3 reef safe bottles of sunscreen on a designed background that includes a coral reef
Credit: Amazon, Getty Images / RomoloTavani

It's no secret the important role sunscreen plays in protecting your skin from UV rays and the premature skin aging (plus, increased risk of skin cancer) that can strike from overexposure. Depending on the type you slather on, however, your go-to sunscreen may be protecting your skin at the expense of coral reefs—one of the most valuable ecosystems on earth.

It's not just that an estimated 25% of all marine life depends on coral reefs for survival: They're also a source of food and new medicines, not to mention they protect coastlines from storms and erosion by shielding the shoreline from waves.

"Coral reefs are dying at an alarmingly accelerated rate, and some environmentalists are concerned that sunscreen ingredients, particularly from chemical sunscreens, are contributing to coral reef bleaching," says Susan Massick, M.D., associate clinical professor of dermatology at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "The current theory is these sunscreens, with ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate, wash off in the water and settle into the coral reefs, thus affecting reef reproduction."

Once their life cycles are disrupted, coral reefs are no longer able to sustain themselves and slowly start to die off, noted by loss of color.

While the loss of coral reefs is multifactorial and can't be attributed to chemical sunscreens alone, it's one aspect we can easily do something about by making the switch to reef-friendly sunscreens.

How to Choose the Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens

Because the term "reef-friendly" isn't regulated and there's no clear definition of the term being used among manufacturers, it's important to read the label yourself to make sure the sunscreen you're considering doesn't include reef-harming ingredients. (To be extra-diligent, you can also browse sunscreen brand websites to see if they provide intel on how they specifically go about defining "reef-friendly.")

What designates a sunscreen as reef-friendly are the specific ingredients. Reef-friendly sunscreens are those that don't contain chemical ingredients, with the biggest offenders being oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3 and BP-3), octinoxate, mineral oil (petrolatum), 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC), octocrylene, para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), parabens and triclosan. (Whew!)

Reef-friendly sunscreens, on the other hand, are mineral-based and provide the necessary broad-spectrum UVA and UVB coverage with the ingredients titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

"Rather than absorb into the skin like chemical sunscreens, these minerals sit on top and act as a shield, reflecting the sun's rays away from the skin," says New York City-based cosmetic dermatologist Michele Green, M.D.

Mineral sunscreens fall under two categories: those with nanoparticles and those without, with non-nano sunscreens being the reef-friendly choice.

When nano-size (smaller) particles are present in mineral sunscreens, they're much easier to rub into the skin and don't leave an opaque white film behind—but the smaller the particles, the easier they can be ingested by corals and disrupt the ecosystem.

Non-nano sunscreens, with a particle size greater than 100 nanometers, are considered reef-friendly. "The large particle size of the minerals can't be ingested by the corals," says Green.

The Best Reef-Safe Sunscreens, According to Dermatologists

1. Kokua Sun Care SPF 50 Natural Zinc Sunscreen

This water-resistant zinc sunscreen by Kokua Sun Care provides broad-spectrum protection using the highest percentage (25%) of non-nano zinc oxide available as the only active ingredient. It also goes on like a moisturizing lotion and rubs in clear and smooth.

Kokua Sun Care SPF 50 Natural Zinc Sunscreen
$29.99
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Amazon

2. Sun Bum Mineral SPF 50 Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion

Not only is this zinc-based mineral sunscreen by Sun Bum reef-friendly, it's also hypoallergenic, gluten- and cruelty-free, so you can enjoy broad-spectrum UV protection without having to worry about skin irritation.

Sun Bum Mineral SPF 50 Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion
$14.99
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Amazon

3. Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen SPF 30

Specially formulated for super-sensitive skin, Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen is fast-absorbing and non-whitening. The 100% non-nano zinc formula provides 80 minutes of water- and sweat-resistant coverage. Perfect for your next beach day with the family!

Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen SPF 30
$12.94
($15.99 save 19%)
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Amazon

4. Supergoop! Poof 100% Mineral Part Powder SPF 35

As diligent as we are about protecting our skin from UV rays, many of us forget to protect our scalp. Enter Supergoop! with this reef-friendly sunscreen powder that goes on much like a dry shampoo, only with the added bonus of broad-spectrum SPF 35 UV protection. (We're also obsessed with Supergoop's Unseen Sunscreen!)

Supergoop! Poof 100% Mineral Part Powder SPF 35
$34.00
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Dermstore

5. Badger Clear Zinc Suncreen Cream SPF 40

Badger's Clear Zinc Sunscreen Cream contains only four ingredients: zinc oxide, sunflower oil, beeswax and vitamin E. It's hypoallergenic and fragrance-free, making it suitable for all skin types. It also rubs in clear to blend with most skin tones.

Badger Clear Zinc Suncreen Cream SPF 40
$26.95
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Amazon

6. Black Girl Sunscreen Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30

Made for melanated skin, this broad-spectrum sunscreen dries clear, leaving no white residue behind. It's water-resistant for up to 80 minutes and is infused with jojoba and avocado, making it the perfect moisturizing lotion that's as lightweight as it is protective.

Black Girl Sunscreen Moisturizing Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
$15.99
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Ulta

7. ThinkSport SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen

Besides offering broad-spectrum protection using a non-nano formula, this mineral sunscreen by ThinkSport absorbs easily with a non-greasy feel and is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes.

ThinkSport SPF 50 Mineral Sunscreen
$17.69
($23.99 save 26%)
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Amazon

8. Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 50

If you've experienced one too many lotion tubes popping open in your beach bag, then give this sunscreen stick by Blue Lizard a whirl. It's a breeze to apply and features a 100% non-nano formula, as well as aloe vera, shea butter, sunflower seed oil and vitamin E for added skin nourishment.

Blue Lizard Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen Stick SPF 50
$8.99
($18.75 save 52%)
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Amazon