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Reef Safe Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid

The term "Reef Safe Sunscreen" is unregulated and often misleading. Many sunscreen manufacturers use the term in their marketing because the product doesn’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, but in reality any sunscreen containing any petrochemical is NOT reef safe and should be avoided. Petrochemicals (chemicals derived from oil) do not biodegrade and are toxic to humans as well as marine life, including corals.

According to the National Park Service, 14,000 tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers, scuba divers, and snorkelers into coral reef environments each year. That's the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez oil spill every 3 years, and even more sunscreen pollution can reach coastal areas via waste water discharges.

About 25% of sunscreen applied to the skin is released into the water within 20 minutes of submersion. When we shower, these chemicals wash off our skin and can pollute wastewater that ends up in the ocean as well.

As corals absorb sunscreen petrochemicals, their reaction is similar to corals in high ocean water temperatures. Additionally, the presence of petrochemicals in sea water allows viruses to thrive, putting corals at high risk of catching an infection that could lead to bleaching and death.


“Eighty-five percent of the Caribbean coral reefs died before 1999 or 2000. That wasn’t global warming. It’s pollution,” says Dr. Craig A. Downs, Ph.D., executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory.


Coral reef systems are struggling for many reasons, including rising ocean temperatures, sewage pollution, and sunscreen pollution. Chemical sunscreen pollution offers a simple solution — replace chemical sunscreens with zinc oxide sunscreens.

Before you buy sunscreen, flip the bottle and look at the active and inactive ingredients. Make sure to avoid the following ingredients.



A single drop of Oxybenzone in 4.3 million gallons of waters is enough to kill coral. Oxybenzone causes coral bleaching, DNA damage, planula deformity, mortality, and skeletal endocrine disruption. It can cause juvenile coral to be fatally trapped in their own skeletons.



Octinoxate causes mortality in developing coral and increases coral bleaching that indicates extreme stress. It causes genetic damage to coral and other marine animals. It has also been shown to degrade corals' resiliency and ability to adjust to climate change factors and inhibit recruitment of new corals.



Researchers have shown octocrylene forms compounds that bioaccumulate in coral and could impair coral metabolism. They conclude that octocrylene is toxic at high levels and predict that it may also be toxic at environmentally relevant levels over longer exposure times.



Big sunscreen manufacturers have pivoted away from oxybenzone by switching to avobenzone. But from a molecular standpoint, avobenzone is almost identical to oxybenzone and is a serious mismatch to reef and human biochemistries. Avobenzone’s health effects are less studied, but it's simply not safe for longterm use.



Octisalate disrupts hormones and is generally used to increase UVB protection and water-resistance properties in a sunscreen formula. It typically degrades when exposed to sunlight and it increases absorption rates of other toxic ingredients.



Homosalate helps the sunscreen penetrate into the skin and is a potential endocrine disruptor, and studies in cells suggest it may impact hormones for all living organisms.


Hawaii is the first state in the US to ban the sale of sunscreen containing the coral-harming chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. The new law goes into effect January 1, 2021.


In Closing

Roughly 14,000 tons of sunscreen petrochemicals wash into the oceans each year (that’s the equivalent of an Exxon Valdez oil spill every 3 years or less), and research shows many of these damage coral and marine life.

As for humans, a single use of petrochemical sunscreen destroys the benefits of an entire year's worth of clean, organic eating. If you'd like the numbers behind this, just email us at

Next time you grab for your sunscreen, flip it over and actually read the ingredients, including the “inactive” ones. Do you know what all of them are and what they’re doing? Remember, all petrochemicals are toxic to reefs, fish and humans.


Waxhead Sunscreens

All Waxhead sunscreens are reef safe and reef friendly. They do not contain any of the above ingredients and we do not use any of the harmful ingredients on the HEL LIST.

The only active ingredient in our sunscreens is uncoated, non-nano, zinc oxide. It is a powered mineral and does not dissolve in seawater and settles to the bottom of the ocean and becomes sediment. Our inactive ingredients are certified organic and are sustainably sourced from plants and are safe for all marine environments. We are also a part of the Safe Sunscreen Coalition Certification.





1. Know your ingredients — Flip over your sunscreen and read the ingredients. We want everyone to know what good ingredients are, regardless of whether they use our products or not. Your health is worth it.

2. Buy safe sunscreen — Waxhead is dedicated to using only the healthiest, safest, most effective ingredients in our sunscreens. Shop Safe Sunscreen here.

3. Teach a friend — If you know someone who might still be buying sunscreen with questionable ingredients, please share this post with him/her.








"Reef Safe" Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid

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