Reef Safe, Plastic Free Sunscreen: Our Guide

Reef Safe is used to refer to a chemical formula that will not have any negative effects on the coral reef ecosystem. Formulas that are labelled as Reef Safe should not include known toxic chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate that can disrupt the fragile balance of water chemistry or be consumed by ocean organisms to cause harm.

Unfortunately there is no internationally accepted definition of Reef Safe, making it hard to define. There is no standardised test method or internationally recognised certification process for Reef Safe, which again makes it difficult to regulate.

Don’t worry though, here we will help you navigate this topic and discuss how to best choose a Reef Safe sunscreen. Considering the grey surrounding this topic, our best advice is to thoroughly research brands you are interested in and contact them directly if you can’t find information on their Reef Safe approach.

Why is Reef Safe important?

It was estimated in 2018 that 14,000 tons of sunscreen enters our oceans every year, and this is ever increasing as people flock to coastal areas for holidays or a new lifestyle. Why is this bad? Because typical chemicals used in sunscreen have been shown to cause ocean toxicity in highly visited swimming areas, contributing to coral die off. Studies prior to 2018 in Hawaii showed record amounts of oxybenzone & octinoxote in their water samples, and a direct correlation with the declining health of the tropical reef.  These studies led to the Hawaiian government banning all sunscreens that use these chemicals in 2018.

Now we have cumulative effect where the chemicals in sunscreen are being measured in ever higher levels in our oceans. If we don’t stop using toxic sunscreens, we will likely see an accelerated decline in the health of these beautiful ecosystems.

Do these chemicals affect us too?

Yes! It goes without saying that anything toxic to coral and ocean animals, is likely going to be toxic for human consumption too. Oxybenzone, octocrelyne & octinoxote are known endocrine disruptors, which means they can mimic the natural hormones in your body, and wreak havoc there. They have the ability to be absorbed through the skin into the bloodstream, and studies have shown these chemicals to be present in the blood of people who wear sunscreen frequently. There are some studies that demonstrate that these chemicals can disrupt natural reproductive cycles in both plants and people.

What are the ingredients to avoid?

The main culprits are:

  • oxybenzone
  • octinoxate

Hawaii has banned these two ingredients, and in Australia most brands have stopped using them due to the findings that have unveiled their toxicity. By regulation, all Australian sunscreens have to list the active ingredients on the packaging, so it is easy for you to check which chemicals they use. If you see either of these ingredients, put it back on the shelf!

Other ingredients that are potentially harmful are:

  • avobenzone
  • homosolate
  • octocrelyne etc.

These have yet to be studied extensively like oxybezone but are best avoided.

Another thing to consider is the base formula that sunscreens are made with. Legally sunscreen brands don’t have to disclose this ingredient list, so even if the active ingredient is zinc oxide, the base can be made of undesirable ingredients. Many sunscreens are made with synthetic oils such as mineral oil (which sounds nice, but is actually made from fossil fuels!). They are often very high in preservatives, fragrances, stabilisers and emulsifying agents.

Choose Zinc!

Choosing a zinc based sunscreen will keep you well clear of the harmful consequences in typical sunscreens. Zinc is known as a physical sunscreen, which forms a layer on top of the skin and usually comes in thicker formulas that don’t wash off into the water as easily, making them more likely to be Reef Safe. It is a naturally occurring mineral that provides a physical barrier on the skin, essentially shading you from the sun.

Zinc has many other good qualities, it can help to heal acne and scarring, it can sooth inflamed skin, and it help to regulate oil production. There is really no downside to zinc!

There are many types of zinc based sunscreens available. A good brand will clearly list all its ingredients on the packaging, (active AND base ingredients) so that’s the first thing to look out for. Zinc should be the only active ingredient.

Is Sunscreen available in plastic free packaging?

Yes! There are many excellent brands that put their heart and soul into creating truly eco-friendly sunscreens, including sustainable packaging. Look out for compostable tubes from brands like Winki Zinc. These are push up tubes made from recycled paper and a cellulose lining – once the zinc is finished they can be composted in your backyard! There are a few fabulous brands that utilise aluminium tins including SunButter and Seed & Sprout Co. Aluminium has one of the highest recycle rates of any material, a whopping 70-80% compared to plastic which only sees 10-12% get recycled.

Plastic Free Sunscreen

What about nano-zinc?

There has been some confusion regarding the size of zinc particles commonly used in sunscreens. Zinc is typically known for the white pasty cast it leaves on the skin. Engineers & formulators have learned that if particles are ground into smaller ones (micronised or nanoparticle), this significantly reduces the white cast and greatly improves the SPF making for smoother formulas that feel lighter on the skin.

Nanoparticles are used in a multitude of applications such as medications, cosmetics, construction and paints. The concern with sunscreen is that these small sized particles can be absorbed by the skin and possibly by microorganisms such as coral. Studies are inconclusive as to the ecological effects of nano zinc used in sunscreens. There is no universal approach regarding nanoparticles in sunscreens, and they are approved and used widely across the globe. Due to the conflicting research regarding this topic however, we recommend choosing a sunscreen brand that clearly states the type of zinc they use, and opt for one that uses non nano zinc where possible.


Belinda Sharrock

Founder at Winki Zinc.

Belinda developed Winki Zinc products after she experienced first hand the greasy film of sunscreen while surfing on the coral reef in Sri Lanka. When she learned of the chemicals contained in this film she was determined to create a more gentle and kind product using zinc, for people to wear outdoors. She has a diploma in Natural Skincare Formulation and a degree in Outdoor and Environmental Education.

Browse our directory to find  more eco friendly beauty & personal care brands.

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