The best ocean-friendly sunscreens for your summer adventures

If you are as mad about the ocean and water sports as we are, you have probably heard that Hawaii recently banned the use of sunscreens that are harmful to reefs. In particular, sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate have been proven to “have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment and residing ecosystems”. It’s a landmark move for marine conservation and hopefully other countries will follow suit to actively force manufacturers to change the ingredients in their products to produce truly ocean-friendly sunscreens. 

Harmful chemicals in sunscreen

Whether you are planning to go snorkelling, surfing or SUPing this summer, it’s worth knowing what types of sunscreen ingredients can be harmful to the ocean, but also to your own body. Here are a couple of the biggest sunscreen nasties and why to avoid them:

Parabens

Parabens are preservatives that are added to many cosmetic products to prolong shelf life and prevent bacterial growth (about 75% of cosmetics contain parabens). Although there is not enough conclusive evidence about the negative effect of parabens at the moment to convince government bodies such as the the FDA (USA) or the European Commission to issue an outright ban of parabens, several studies have linked parabens to endocrine disruption, i.e. the disruption of the normal functioning of the hormone system, in humans. Disrupting the hormone system can lead to issues with growth, development, reproduction and brain function. Another concern is that parabens are entering the marine ecosystem as they wash into the ocean through our sewage systems. A study dating back to 2016 looked at tissue samples from various sea mammals such as dolphins, sea otters and polar bears, and found parabens in many of the samples. Just as parabens can affect humans, they can also cause hormonal disruptions in marine animals. The EU has limited the allowable amount of parabens in products, and Denmark, for example, have banned certain types of parabens in products for young children. Fortunately, there is an increasing trend in the cosmetics industry to offer paraben-free products. So if you’d rather not be exposed to parabens, avoid products that contain methylparaben, butylparaben, propylparaben or isoparaben.

Oxybenzone & octinoxate

These chemical ingredients can have adverse effects on coral reefs, particularly in areas with a large influx of tourists, such as Hawaii. Studies have shown that a high concentration of these chemicals can stunt the growth of baby corals and can lead to coral bleaching. Studies have also linked oxybenzone to endocrine disruption among marine creatures such as shrimps and clams.

But it’s not just marine life we should worry about. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), the Center for Disease Control and Prevention routinely detects oxybenzone in the blood of more than 96% of the American population. Beyond causing allergic reactions in some people, it can also “act as a weak estrogen and has potent anti-androgenic effects (Krause 2012, Ghazipura 2017)”. But how do you know if your sunscreen contains these two chemicals? While some sunscreens clearly state these in their ingredients list, others use a wide variety of synonyms. The EWG has produced a comprehensive database which lists all of the synonyms of these chemicals for oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Which sunscreens are ocean-friendly?

So, what sunscreens are best for your ocean adventures? The best thing is to look for sunscreens using minerals, such as zinc oxide. Ideally, the zinc oxide should be labelled ‘non-nano’. Although zinc oxide can be manufactured at nano size level, there is some concern that nano particles could seep into our body below the dermal layer. There is no conclusive evidence yet to confirm that nanoparticles could be absorbed by the skin, but while the research in this area is still on-going, it’s best to err on the side of caution and avoid products containing nano particles. Here are our favourite ocean (and human) friendly sunscreens:

Surfdurt

Made with non-nano zinc oxide and a bunch of other (pretty tasty-sounding) organic ingredients such as coconut oil and raspberry seed oil, this reef-safe sunscreen by Surfdurt gets our thumbs up. Apparently, it’s “the only all-natural, extreme adventure sunscreen made with solar-Powered manufacturing” – and it comes in a slick-looking bamboo useable container. Buy it from the Surfdurt website.

Surfdurt’s Original Durt Sunscreen (56.7 g/2 oz)

ThinkSport

Another product made with zinc oxide, ThinkSport is free of harsh chemicals and you can buy their products direct from their website as well as from Amazon. We love their precautionary attitude to manufacturing safe products. If an ingredient hasn’t yet been proven to be safe (yet), they simply won’t use it. It’s a refreshing stance given that manufacturers are going paraben-free but are adding other plastics whose long-term effects haven’t been properly tested yet. They apply the same principles to their packaging.

ThinkSport’s SPF 50+ Sunscreen (3fl oz)

Coola

Made from 70% organic ingredients, this Coola sunscreen stick is made with non-nano zinc oxide and is available in the colours “neutral” and “golden”. It’s got SPF50 and we really like that it comes as stick which makes the product easy to apply. We also love their Farm to Face® principle, which involves sourcing ingredients and vendors locally to promote communities and jobs as well as cutting down on the costs of long distance shipping (both financial and environmental). Buy it directly from their website or from Amazon.

Coola’s Mineral Sport SPF 50 Organic Sunscreen Stick (29 g/1 oz)

Badgerbalm

Another great sunscreen using non-nano zinc oxide. Badgerbalm SPF35 Sport Sunscreen is made from only five ingredients and is 98% organic. It’s water resistant for up to 80 minutes and it’s fragrance-free, which is great for people with sensitive skin. You can buy Badgerbalm products directly from their website if you are based in the USA or Canada, or head to Ecco Verde, if you are based in the EU (also available on Amazon).

Badgerbalm’s Sport Sunscreen Cream SPF 35 (2.9 fl oz)

It’s fair to say that these sunscreens aren’t necessarily the cheapest sun protection options out there. But as ocean adventurers, we often wear protective gear anyway so that the most exposed parts of our bodies tend to be face, neck, arms and hands. So, a small tube or tub of slightly more expensive, reef- and ocean-safe sunscreen will go quite a long way – so you can protect your body and the ocean without it costing the earth!