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Skin care

A guide on reef-safe sunscreens worth the investment

Including an extensive zinc sunscreen list

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 to exposure, effective about twenty minutes after application. Light and transparent, chemical sunscreens produce no white cast and glide 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. The American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends approximately the amount of a shot glass of sunscreen to fully cover the body (1 ounce, or 30 ml or two tablespoons). If applying only on the face, I read ⅓ teaspoon, including ears, neck, temples and hairline, so enough to cover all of the previous. Apply 15 to 20 minutes before heading in the sun, and slather again every two hours, particularly after water bathing or sweating. Also, remember sunscreen efficiency decreases in the water, even if labelled as 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 synthetic chemical elements believed to harm corals, including 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, amongst others, to protect their local reefs. At the end of 2019, the island country of Palau followed suit. In 2021, Thailand banned chemical sunscreens containing Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor or Butylparaben from their marine parks. More recently, in 2023, the French Agency for Food, Environmental and Occupational Health & Safety (ANSES) emitted a warning for Octocrylene, another UV absorber used in chemical sunscreens, followed later on by a comprehensive study of over fifty synthetic chemical substances that established the impact of three UV filters in coral bleaching (Oxybenzone, Octocrylene and 4-methylbenzylidene). A similar situation in Spain through the Organization of Consumers and Users (OCU) recommends avoiding Octocrylene and Homosalate. Unfortunately, we are still to witness adequate law regulations and bans for both countries at the National and European levels. To keep track, here is a comprehensive list of the regions and countries with chemical sunscreen bans.

Overall, the term “reef-safe” is not regulated by governments, 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—on fish, these chemicals decrease fertility and reproduction; on green algae, they impair growth and photosynthesis; on corals, they damage DNA, killing the polyps, provoking mass bleaching. At the time, living in New Zealand, close to Australia and its Great Barrier Reef and the Pacific Islands nations, the concerns surrounding sunscreens were growing.

And so I was doing my best not to contribute to the damage of these environments. Later, I purchased a reef-safe sunscreen from Biotherm, a landmark French brand, so I was happy to do my bit for a better planet! Following that, we flew to Samoa with Benoit on holidays—in the pre-Covid era. We met Doctor Austin Bowden-Kerby, a marine scientist, permaculture farm developer and reef-restoration pioneer. A scientific superstar! On a trip organised by the Bahá'í community, he was there 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. Dr Bowden quickly checked the composition of my reef-safe sunscreen and told me straight it wasn't safe for corals at all; it contained Homosalate, also a potential endocrine disruptor. Since we absorb what lies 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.

The benefits of zinc reef-safe sunscreen

Since then, I have preferred mineral sunscreens, as checking if they are reef-safe is straightforward. As long as they omit Avobenzone and 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, I choose the highest SPF possible, as the sun is harsh there. Naturally, many of the sunscreen brands I share in this article are from Australia and New Zealand. Regardless, if I’m using something daily, 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 acne-prone skin!

The tensions around mineral sunscreens are centred on the famous white cast. A zinc base gives the sunscreen a thick, milky texture, often making it difficult to glide smoothly onto the skin. However, 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 environmental impact, there is no tangible reason to complain. Also, some brands released tinted sunscreen to avoid the ghost-looking aspect, though they tend to stain clothing and swimwear.

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, mostly zinc oxide sunscreens, from Australia and other places

You can find your dream reef-safe, zinc sunscreen all over the world. Unless stated otherwise, all the brands listed below are vegan and cruelty-free unless I missed the info. If you’re a brand I haven’t found yet, feel free to contact us!

Tinted, mineral zinc sunscreens for the face

My daily skincare facial routine always includes sunscreen protection. Since writing this article, things have shifted a little bit. I used to like the organic Coola Mineral sunscreen SPF 30 (NZ$59). After that, I switched to Laboratoire de Biarritz’s face sunscreen (NZ$41) but changed because they use nano Zinc Oxide. For the last few years, I have lathered my face, ears and neck with Ethical Zinc SPF50+ Daily Wear Tinted Facial Sunscreen - Light Tint (NZ$22, shipping worldwide). I used it every day, all seasons, either in the city or outdoors. However, now I am in Spain, I was looking for a more local brand and came across Nuura Facial Suncare, SPF 50 (NZ$45). In trial soon!

Other zinc face sunscreen options, by price points*

Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen with Sheer Tint, SPF 30, by CeraVe, NZ$20 - The product itself is vegan, but the brand is not cruelty-free (I thought it was worth mentioning for questions of affordability).

SPF50+ Mineral Primer, by Outside Beauty & Skincare, NZ$35.

Sticky Zinc, SPF 50, by We Are Feel Good Inc, NZ$35.

Daily SPF Mineral-Based Sunscreen, SPF 32, by Cocokind, $NZ41.

Go! Daily Defense Soothing Mineral Face Sunscreen, SPF 30, by Solara Sunscare, NZ$41.

Mineral Sunscreen Zinc Oxide Broad Spectrum, SPF 30, by First Aid Beauty, NZ$42.

Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 45, by Koa, NZ$43.

Daily Dew or Sunglow face sunscreen, SPF 35, by Kinfield, NZ$46.

Shake Shake, SPF 50, by Vacation, NZ$48.

Solar Stress™ Mineral Bioactive Shield, SPF 50+, by People4Ocean, NZ$62.

Collagen Glow 100% Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 50, by Naked Sundays, $NZ66.

Natural Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30, by Grown Alchemist, NZ$67.

Moisturizing Mineral Face Sunscreen and Primer, SPF 35, by Suntegrity, NZ$79.

Essential, SPF 30, by Kari Gran, NZ$90.

Force Field, SPF 30, by Ursa Major, NZ$118.

*(price and shipping availability can vary depending on destination).

A selection of water-resistant zinc sunscreens for the body

I enjoy the outdoors, am an avid beach lover, and have been surfing every month for a few years now. 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. They are trustworthy products, including affordable options, for mineral sunscreens. Below is my selection. Mostly water-resistant, suitable for active users. They are cruelty-free and are free from harmful chemicals, enabling you to enjoy the outdoors without sacrificing your values—some I’ve been using, some I researched or suggested by others. I split the list between tubes, tins and pure zinc for the people who are also making an effort with packaging and spend most of their time in the water.

Reef-safe mineral sunscreens in tubes, by price points*

There are TONS of reef-safe, mineral sunscreens in tubes online. Here is a comprehensive list of all the brands I gathered so far. I will add more brands over time.

Mineral Sunscreen Lotion with Prebiotics, SPF 55+, by Hello Bello, NZ$16.30.

Zinc Oxide Sunscreen, SPF 50, by Safe Sea, NZ$18.

Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 50, by Thinksport, NZ$19.

Mineral Sunscreen Biodegradable and Reef Safe Sunscreen, SPF 30, Stream 2 Sea, NZ$20.

Mineral Sunscreen Cream, SPF 30, by Badger Company, NZ$25.

Mineral Sunscreen Spray, SPF 30, by Beauty by Earth, NZ$25.

Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen with Zinc Oxide, SPF 50, Blue Lizard, NZ$25.

Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30, by Olita, NZ$26.

Sport Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30, by All Good, NZ$28.

Sheer Zinc Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30, by Babo Botanicals, NZ$29.

Natural Sunscreen Clear Zinc, SPF 50, by Little Urchin, NZ$30.

Sunscreen 20% Zinc Oxide, SPF 30, by TotLogic, NZ$30.

Mineral Lotion, SPF 30, by Vacation, NZ$35.

Easy-On Sunscreen, SPF50, by Trukid, NZ$36.

Mineral sunscreen broad spectrum, SPF 30, by Absolutely Natural, NZ$39.

Sun Care, SPF 50, by Kokua, NZ$49.

Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Vitamin Enriched, SPF 30, by Waxhead, NZ$50

Clear Zinke, SPF 50, by Key Sun, NZ$53

Sun Care Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30, by People4Ocean, NZ$58.

Certified natural sun protection Kawakawa & Tamanu sunscreen, SPF 50+, by Earth’s Kitchen, NZ$59.

Mineral Body Sunscreen, SPF 30, by Suntegrity, NZ$62.

Hydrating Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30, by Malin + Goetz, NZ$62.

Everybody Loves The Sunshine Beach Balm, by Living Libations, NZ$65.

Reef-safe mineral sunscreens in metal tins, by price points*

Tubes are practical but made of plastic or a variation. For those looking to ditch plastic from their lives, I’ve also compiled a list of the brands that make sunscreen in tins. I love tins packaging. Made of aluminium, tins are completely reusable or recyclable. Yet, remember that many of these sunscreens include coconut oil in their ingredient list for hydration and texture, so if living in warmer regions or during summer, the texture can turn runnier. Some people complained about leakage from a tin, if upside-down, for example. It never happened to me, but I confirm the sunscreen goes on the liquid side with higher temperatures, which is better for application.

Daily Face and Body Sunscreen, SPF 40, by Seasick Sunscreen Co., NZ$21.

Face and Body Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 30, by Raw Elements, NZ$25.

Water Resistant Reef Safe Sunscreen, SPF 50, by Sunbutter Skincare, NZ$28.

Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 35, by Raw Love, NZ$32.

Reef Safe Sunscreen, SPF 30, by Mama Kuleana, NZ$35.

Mineral Sunscreen, SPF 40, by Sol, NZ62.

Many of the brands in the tubes section also offer tin versions, such as Stream 2 Sea, Waxhead or All Good.

Reef-safe, pure zinc, in stick and mud form, by price points*

I find that the advantage of wearing pure zinc for sun protection is that it is extra resistant to water; the more you layer, the more protection you get (hence why some brands don’t show an SPF, as it will depend on the thickness of your application). You can also physically see when it is time to re-apply, an excellent indicator when practising outdoor water sports or heavily sweating.

Zinc Oxide Stick, SPF 50, by Sun Zapper, NZ$17

Straddie Zinc, (No SPF), by Nourish Naturally, NZ$22.

Vegan Surf Zinc, SPF 50, by Sunbutter Skincare, NZ$23.

The Original (No SPF), by Surf Mud, NZ$32.

Surfer's Barrier Stick, SPF 50, by Avasol, NZ$33.

Surf Mud Pro, SPF 30, by EiR NYC, NZ$53.

*(price and shipping availability can vary depending on destination).

After all, 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. Some of my favourite water clothing is from Salt Gypsy. Also, head to eBay or similar marketplaces for second-hand options like this Patagonia rash guard.

Investing in a beach umbrella and avoiding peak sun hours is also part of the sun protection strategy. Still, we love a good day at the beach, so we invested in a sturdy gazebo to protect ourselves during the harshest hours.

Aftersun care, a selection to nourish your skin post-exposure

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

If, after all precautions, you did get sunburned, think lots of moisturising; using pure Aloe Vera or cooling lotions, such as the Bondi Sands Hydra After Sun Aloe Vera Cooling Foam or rich oil like Sun Juju Universal oil, will help mitigate the burn. For the face, I always keep some Violette_FR Sérum Superlatif UV Damage Rescue to support skin regeneration. And if you find that your hair is getting damaged from sun exposure or salt, I am an avid user of Ceremonia Guava Leave-In conditioner. I love the old-school scent, too. I’ve also read great reviews of Stream 2 Sea's Leave-In conditioner and its restorative properties.

Protecting our skin from sun damage is paramount to avoiding skin cancer. Respecting our environment by preventing over-pollution is also crucial. However, finding affordable, trustworthy, reef-safe sunscreens takes work. First, brands might not have their full range reef-safe, so they can’t be fully trusted. Responsible, reef-safe skincare tends to cost more compared to mainstream skin products. Unfair, it is becoming more established that chemical sunscreens contain hidden costs to our environment and health. I hope this comprehensive piece will help you choose better for yourself and Nature. Enjoy the sun, wherever you are!

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