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Skin care

A guide on reef-safe sunscreens worth the investment

Photography by Tracey Creed
Assisted by Amandine Paniagua
Words by Amandine Paniagua

Published February 9 2021

Reef-safe sunscreen is the most important skincare product in my life. I come from the Mediterranean region in France—sun is non-negotiable. In my family, summer is our moment and the beach, our happy place. On the warmest time of the year, as kids you would find us out from 10 am to 5 pm, playing non-stop in the sand, the water, or the garden. Of course, we were coated in sunscreen, re-applying a few times a day, yet never afraid of the sun's rays. My student job on Summer breaks was a lifeguard in a water park. Needless to say, there was never Vitamin D deficiency around here, and I got the most tanned skin ever. Also, the worst burn, early in the season. Then my perception of sun exposure changed. Moving to New Zealand made me realise that as much as I love sunbathing, the sun is a powerful trigger for damaging the skin, the derm needs constant protection to age peacefully, and gracefully. It is a short and long-term game.

What is sunscreen and why to use it?

Put simply, sunscreen defends your skin from the effects of ultraviolet (UV), electromagnetic radiation waves naturally emitted by the sun; that can also be produced artificially. There are two types of UV, called UVA (long waves) and UVB (short waves). The first goes deep in the skin while the second affects the superficial layers. If the skin absorbs a great amount of these radiations, it reacts through tanning, sunburn (UVB), premature ageing including hyperpigmentation and skin cancer (UVA). We all react differently to radiation, our strength and the dose we can absorb is specific to each individual. To make sure your sunscreen protects you against both UVA and UVB, you need to look after the label “broad spectrum” on the packaging.

Wearing sunscreen, we effectively prevent our skin from discolouration and dark spots, maintaining an even and smooth skin tone. The way sunscreens protect your skin is through active filtering ingredients, reacting to UV. Though no sunscreen can defend the skin from 100% of UV, they can protect up to 98%, depending on their Sun Protection Factor (SPF). Learn everything about SPF, and that someone’s job is probably to spread sunscreen on butts daily, here. Basically what you have to remember is the higher the SPF, the slower your un-tanned skin will burn.

Sunscreens exist in two forms of protection: mineral and chemical.

Mineral sunscreens create a shield over your skin. Also called physical sunscreen, they contain active ingredients, Zinc Oxide or Titanium Dioxide, that block and reflect the radiation before it reaches the skin. Usually thick, leaving a more or less white cast, mineral sunscreens are very stable and perform straight from the application. If containing Zinc Oxide, they also come with skincare benefits including anti-inflammatory effects, soothing completion and regulating breakouts, ideal for sensitive skin.

Chemical sunscreens drink up the UV instead of your skin, dissipating the radiation. To work, the active ingredients, such as Oxybenzone, Avobenzone or Homosalate, need to be absorbed by the skin prior exposure, effective about twenty minutes after application. Light and transparent, chemical sunscreens produce no white cast, and glides on the skin while applying.

To learn more about the difference between mineral and chemical sunscreen, here is a clear overview.

A general rule for both sunscreen types is the more volume you apply, the better protection you get., backed by the NZ Ministry of Health, recommends two teaspoons of sunscreen per leg, one teaspoon per arm, one for your back, one for your front and one for your face, Apply 15 to 20 minutes before heading in the sun, and slather again every two hours, particularly after water bathing. Also, remember sunscreen efficiency decreases in the water, even if labelled -hours resistant. If you spend time in the sea, a 4 hour water-resistant sunscreen might not last 30 minutes.

What is a reef-safe sunscreen?

Commonly, a reef-safe sunscreen is a chemical sunscreen that does not contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, the two most widely studied components of chemical sunscreens. As a result, states in the US like Hawaii, or cities like Key West in Florida banned sales and imports of these two chemical ingredients to protect their local reefs. Earlier last year, the island country of Palau followed suit, amongst others. But the term is not regulated by governments, and so the story doesn’t end here.

I can’t remember how I learnt about reef-safe sunscreen, but somehow I became aware of the problem prompted by sunscreens composition on ocean pollution, impacting corals and marine life in general. Coral reefs are very sensitive marine invertebrates, composed of a hard calcium carbonate skeleton hosting soft microorganisms called coral polyps. These polyps give their colours to coral reefs, providing lush habitats to multiple marine species. Corals are major for all life on Earth because they produce half of our oxygen and absorb almost a third of the carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuel. They are also resilient protection against ocean movements like tsunamis. Unfortunately, corals suffer from rising temperature, water acidification and pollution.

Sunscreens are partially responsible for water pollution, especially in coastal and beach areas where the concentration of people wearing sunscreen is significant. Nearly 14,000 tons of sunscreen are released in reef areas every year. A large amount of chemical active ingredients such as Avobenzone, Oxybenzone or Octinoxate, and parabens, like Methyl-paraben or Phenoxyethanol, are washed from bathing or showering into the ocean, impacting marine life to various degrees. The effect on fish, these chemicals decrease fertility and reproduction, on green algae, they impair growth and photosynthesis, and on corals, they damage DNA, killing following mass bleaching. Living in New Zealand, close to Australia and its Great Barrier Reef, and the Pacific island nations, the concerns surrounding sunscreens are growing.

And so I was doing my best to not contribute to the damage of these environments. Later I purchased a reef-safe sunscreen from Biotherm, a landmark French brand, so happy to do my bit for a better planet! Following, we flew to Samoa with Benoit on holidays, that was pre-Covid era. We had a wonderful time, and we met Doctor Austin Bowden-Kerby, a marine scientist, permaculture farm developer and reef-restoration pioneer. A scientific superstar! He was there on a trip organised by the Bahá'í community to teach locals how to recognise and harvest heat resistant corals, regenerating the reef to protect their island from rising sea, tsunamis and marine life depletion. Austin quickly checked the composition of my reef-safe sunscreen, and told me straight it wasn’t safe to corals at all; it contained Homosalate, also a potential endocrine disruptor. Since we absorb what lays on our skin, these ingredients could cause potential harm to our health.

Misfortunes like this trigger a behaviour change—asking questions, always interrogating the composition of our sunscreens, our skincare products, and generally what surrounds us.

In this instance, I prefer mineral sunscreens, straightforward to check if they are reef-safe. As soon as they do not include avobenzone and that the Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide they contain are non-nanotized, mineral sunscreens are reef-safe. In addition, having lived in New Zealand for a few years now, I choose the highest SPF possible, as the sun is harsh here. Naturally, most of the sunscreens I share below are from Australia and New Zealand brands. Regardless, if I’m using something every day, I favour a product with skincare benefits. And zinc is a wonderful ingredient. Skin-soothing, anti-inflammatory, zinc is the ally to manage acne breakouts, eczema, rosacea, psoriasis or melasma. I read online about someone wearing zinc sunblock at night to help soothe her skin 24 hours!

The tensions around mineral sunscreens are centred on the famous white cast. A zinc base gives a thick, milky texture to the sunscreen, often difficult to glide smoothly onto the skin. And liquifying the texture comes with a price through the presence of questionable ingredients, like avobenzone in the composition. But in the end, why is the white cast such a big issue for some? I tend to think this is a debate on superficiality. As soon as mineral reef-safe sunscreens do their skin protection job, reducing their impact on the environment, there is no tangible reason to complain. Also, some brands are releasing tinted sunscreen to avoid the ghost-looking aspect.

What to look for when purchasing reef-safe sunscreen?

Reef-safe stamp. This term is the first to look to strain the sunscreen offering. However, it is not government regulated, so you can’t trust the products without studying the ingredient list.

No harmful active ingredients. Look for the absence of UV filters such as Oxybenzone, Octocrylene, Avobenzone, 4MBC, Octinoxate, Homosalate, preservatives as Chloroxylenol or Triclosan, and everything labelled -paraben, for example, Butylparaben, amongst others. Have a look at this page, this one and here to learn about the other possible marine pollution, coral-killer chemical compounds.

Non-nano ingredients. On reef-safe mineral sunscreens, check for non-nano Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. Nano ingredients are dangerous because they penetrate into life at the cell level. That is why avoiding spray sunscreens is also preferable as the chemical ingredients are microscopic and inhaled through the lunges.

No microplastic. No form of microplastic or sunspheres, for example, “exfoliating beads”.

If you have concerns about your reef-safe sunscreen composition (or any beauty products), this link to the Environmental Working Group’s skin deep database compiles ingredient analysis of thousands of products. Another useful database to learn about the health risk of a chemical component is the SIN List.

A list of reef-safe sunscreens

My daily skincare routine always includes sunscreen protection. For my face, I like the organic Coola Mineral sunscreen SPF 30. I use it every day, all year long, including in Summer when I am in the city, also keen to try this one at some point. But I love the outdoors, I am an avid beach lover, and recently started surfing seriously. I had to upgrade my reef-safe sun protection game because, in the water, the sun is unforgiving. I have since picked up a handful of sunscreens, trustworthy products, on the more affordable side for mineral sunscreens. Below is my selection, water-resistant, suitable for active users. They are free from harmful chemicals and cruelty-free, enabling you to enjoy the outdoors without sacrificing your values.

Sunbutter SPF 50 water-resistant reef-safe sunscreen NZ$31.91

I discovered the Sunbutter tin looking for a high SPF protection, zero-waste sunscreen effective while surfing. Sunbutter is one of those brands made by and for active people. Born out of the mind of marine biologists Sacha Guggenheimer and Tom Hiney, their range is produced in Australia, in a solar-powered factory! Sunbutter impersonates sustainability to its core, from natural ingredients to supporting arborigenous culture. They also collaborate with NGO Sea Shepherd. You purchase more than a sunscreen.

Certified vegan and gluten-free, Sunbutter’s active ingredient is non-nano Zinc Oxide, carried by moisturizing natural Coconut Oil and plant-based emulsifier and binder. It also contains Vitamin E, an antioxidant reducing the consequences of free radicals, a.k.a sun damage. You are protecting and rejuvenating your skin at the same time. With a small list of ingredients, Sunbutter is an easy-to-support sunscreen, gentle for all skin types, including children.

Broad-spectrum and 4 hours water-resistant, this physical sunscreen is dense and creamy, it’s called butter after all. Still, Sunbutter is reasonably easy to apply, leaving a clear, shiny layer on the skin, pleasant for dry skin while reinforcing that summer holiday feeling. They recently pulled a tinted formula, for those who want to top up their tan. Hopefully, they will produce more shade of these for darker skins. I found the smell to be shea buttery neutral, and with 100 g, the tin is long-lasting—approximately two months, for one person over a Summer of weekly beach days.

A word on the tin. I love it, it is durable, completely reusable or recyclable, as it is made of aluminium. Yet, remember that the formula is based on coconut oil, so living in warmer regions, or during summer, the texture turns runnier. Some people complained about leakage from the tin, if upside-down for example. It never happened to me though, but I confirm the sunscreen goes on the liquid side with higher temperatures, which is better for application.

Overall, you can not go wrong with Sunbutter, this is a tick-all-the-boxes reef-safe sunscreen. Purchase eyes-closed.

Other options similar to Sunbutter. Raw Love (SPF 45) Raw Elements (SPF 30), Mama Kuleana (SPF 30), Solzinc (SPF 50), Seasick (SPF 30).

Earth's Kitchen Kawakawa & Tamanu SPF 50+ certified natural sun protection NZ$38

I came across this Earth’s Kitchen tube searching for water-resistant New Zealand made organic sunscreen. Created by former nurse Jules Bright, convert naturopath, body therapist and medical herbalist following her healing experience in India, Earth’s Kitchen takes its roots into indigenous wisdom to craft effective, botanical sunscreen. The result of 20 years of research, and the world 1st BioGro's NATRUE certified natural sunscreen SPF50, this is high quality, powerful sun protection.

Integrating Ecocert certified Zinc Oxide as the main active ingredient, EK sunscreen is packed with certified natural, plant-powered ingredients. Rooting into the traditional Maori medicine, the list includes the herbaceous Kawakawa as oil to support the skin through its healing and cleansing properties. Tamanu seeds oil fights free-radical damages and moisturises the skin. Hydration and restorative actions are pillars of this sunscreen, with the addition of Moringa, Harakeke, Coconut, Jojoba, Chamomile or Lavender Oil. Sun protection with strong benefits. The brand also includes another version of their sunscreen for sensitive skin and babies. Needless to add that EK products are also cruelty- free and non-GMO.

Logically broad spectrum, this reef-safe sunscreen is 2+ hours water-resistant. The thickest of my sunscreens, EK is on the sturdy side for application, though silky while rubbing on. See that time as a moment of self-love. Jules told me she reformulated the sunscreen to be easier on application, running smoother without compromising with the formula's quality. It also leaves a light white cast over the skin, which is useful to visualise where sunscreen is missing on your body! And the cast vanishes after a minute or so—I tested to be sure. The smell is citrusy, taken over by sweet orange extract and Kawakawa. The tube is 120 ml, I am confident in saying that it can last a good summer season, you don’t need much to lather your whole body as this sunscreen is highly concentrated.

I am a fan of Earth's Kitchen, given its certifications and that it is New Zealand made, reducing carbon miles. Some people have issues with the texture but those won’t like mineral sunscreens anyway. I like it, and the smell is amazing. In short, this powerful, reef-safe sunscreen will keep you sunburn-free all summer long.

Other options similar to Earth Kitchen. Tropic sport (SPF 50), Hello Bello (SPF 50), Badger Company (SPF 35), Suntegrity (SPF 30), Absolutely Natural (SPF 30), Trukid (SPF 30).

Ethical Zinc Natural Clear Zinc Sunscreen SPF 50+ NZ$22

I picked up Ethical Zinc while on a surf workshop in Raglan last year, running out of sunscreen after two days in the water. Made in Australia and 100% solar-powered for production, have you heard of Ethical Zinc? Neither had I. Difficult to know who they are given there is no tangible info online, but this reef-safe sunscreen delivers!

Cruelty-free, Ethical Zinc goes by the name of its main active ingredient, certified natural, non-nano Zinc Oxide. The rest of the list is composed of high concentration of Coconut Extracts, Castor Oil, binding Fatty Acid and Vitamin E, in addition to natural Vanilla Extracts. Together, they effectively protect, reducing damages from free radicals, and keeping the skin moisturized. This straightforward composition delivers a highly tolerated, reef-safe sunscreen that smells incredibly divine. A well-priced companion to protect sensitive skin, also suitable for the face.

Like the previous sunscreen, this physical barrier is broad-spectrum and comes with 4 hours water-resistant protection. Whipped creamy, Ethical Zinc is the easiest reef-safe sunscreen to slather on. There will be the traditional zinc white cast but it will disappear after a few seconds, only leaving behind that wonderful scent. The tube gives 100 g of defence against the sun, I would say that two tubes will be necessary for 2 months of summer.

I love all my sunscreens, and so Ethical Zinc. The short composition and the absolutely delightful scent makes this reef-safe sunscreen a forever staple. Certainly, it goes fast but the price makes it easier to re-purchase. A sure, affordable value for active users.

Other options similar to Ethical Zinc. Kokua Sun Care (SPF 50), Art of Sport (SPF 50), TotLogic (SPF 50), Sett (SPF 30), Babo Botanicals (SPF 30), Olita (SPF 30), LifeBasics (SPF 30)

Avasol Surfer's Barrier Stick SPF 50 NZ$43.99

I heard about Avasol thanks to our surfing teacher in Raglan. I had never used a zinc stick prior, but when in the ocean, it is by far the most durable and long-lasting sun protection. Created over 10 years ago, Avasol was born out of necessity and frustration from their founders at finding responsible sun protection. Avasol is a brand that covers sustainability and ethics foremost, from design through the end of product life cycle, including business development. These small-batch of premium zinc sticks provide all the sun protection while making a positive impact on the planet.

Here the key ingredients are non-nano Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide. Protection is strong with this one. Cruelty-free, the non-active components range from coconut oil to jojoba and argan oil, including shea butter and tocopherol for the Vitamin E—a bundle of ethically sourced, organic, rich antioxidant ingredients regenerating and healing the skin while in the outdoors. Rated 2 on the EWG’s database, this physical sunblock is tailored for sensitive skin, including children.

Effective the second it touches the skin, this broad-spectrum reef-safe formula, 80 minutes water-resistant is non-greasy or runny. The more you wear, the better the coverage, so apply plenty. Though not really opaque, Avasol zinc stick leaves a cast on the skin. Mine is the dark tint, blending well on my summer completion. It is almost like wearing foundation, a tad thicker though. And my skin loves it, feeling super silky after each use. The smell is mostly neutral, with a touch of tangy. At 28 g we would think Avasol won’t last, but this is zinc in a bar and I am sure it will last a few seasons. I am not even a third through.

A word on the packaging. Cardboard, it is compostable and still strong enough to support the product for a long time, as soon as it doesn’t get too wet.

Practical, long-lasting, resistant and packed with healing ingredients, Avasol is a reef-safe sunscreen zinc stick that makes a difference worth the investment.

Other options similar to Avasol. Salt & Stone (SPF 50+). Also, some brands mentioned prior make zinc stick as well.

Sunbutter surf zinc golden sands NZ$24.24

Buying the Sunbutter sunscreen, I discovered they were making surfer bundles, including their tinted zinc sun blocker and surfboard wax in addition to the reef-safe sunscreen. I got the yellow tint for when we get out in winter and intermediate seasons and are not as tanned. In addition to supporting indigenous culture, and Sea Shepherd, Sunbutter donates a percentage of their profits to Project Hiu, Island Conservation, the Thin Green Line Foundation, and are members of the global organisation 1% for the planet. Again, your investment goes beyond a reef-safe sunblock purchase.

With a mindset similar to their sunscreen, Sunbutter’s zinc formula is cruelty-free and reef-safe, based on non-nano Zinc Oxide. Super rich, it also contains a handful of botanical oils, from sweet almond to coconut and cocoa butter, sustaining your skin while under sun exposure.

Broad-spectrum, this zinc comes in three different tints and smells like chocolate! Velvety, and easy to apply, it leaves a bright yellow cast on the skin, but that’s the goal, right? With 70 g of product out of a tin, this zinc will last quite some time.

This zinc paste is the product I used the least but it sounds good on paper. I will come back here in a few months to develop my feedback. Also, Sunbutter Surf Zinc doesn't have a specified SPF. I asked the brand about it, and they explained it is "super thick and sticky, designed to be applied that way—thick and visible on the skin", and that determines the level of protection. Overall, it is like "wearing a t-shirt, but in a paste form" with the correct amount. And good news, they will soon release a new formula including an official SPF 50. Still, Sunbutter is a brand that delivers results, so I don't see why it will be different from their zinc.

Other options similar to Sunbutter zinc. Manda Naturals (SPF 50), Eir NYC (SPF 30), Surf Mud (No SPF). All Good and Raw Elements also make zinc sun blocker in tins.

I was also planning to talk about another sunscreen, pictured in the banner of the article, but realised afterwards that it contains nano zinc! I felt scammed. But here are some alternatives gathered throughout the internet, to feel better: Thinksport (SPF 50), All Good (SPF 30), Stream 2 Sea (SPF 30), P40 (SPF 50), Little Urchin (SPF 30), Human Nature (SPF 30), Beauty by Earth (SPF 25).

In the end, the cheapest protection remains wearing clothing. An old t-shirt, a rash guard or long sleeve surf suit paired with a cap or a large hat fits the purpose. Investing in a beach umbrella, and avoiding peak sun hours is also part of the strategy. Still, we love a good day at the beach, so we invested in a sturdy gazebo to protect ourselves during the harshest hours.

And for pre-ocean and after-sun pampering, maintaining a beautiful tan, an antioxidant-rich moisturiser will do the job. And to keep these iodine soaked wavy hair, Mermaid Spray or Ocean Mist is our daily friend.

Protecting our skin from sun damage is major to avoiding skin cancer. Respecting our environment by avoiding over pollution is also crucial. However, finding an affordable, trustworthy reef-safe sunscreen is not an easy task. First, brands might not have their full range reef-safe, so can’t be fully trusted. And responsible, reef-safe skincare tends to cost more compared to mainstream skin products. Unfair given chemical sunscreens contain hidden costs to our environment.

Enjoy the summer!

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