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What is reef safe sunscreen?

The term "reef safe" has become more prevalent on sunscreen labels, mainly because sunscreen companies want to attract eco-conscience consumers. However, the term is unregulated by the FDA and shouldn't be considered definitive until the term is regulated effectively.

The simple truth is that most sunscreens marketed as “reef safe” are not at all safe for oceans, reefs, or the animals dependent on them, because their ingredients are toxic to marine biosystems.

These toxic ingredients include ANY petrochemicals, along with nano-sized versions of either zinc oxide or titanium oxide.


Truly Reef Safe Sunscreen

To be truly a reef safe sunscreen, it must contain ONLY mineral active ingredients (zinc oxide or titanium dioxide), and these ingredients must be NON-NANO, which means the particle size is large enough to not enter and harm marine biosystems. If a sunscreen fails to meet all these requirements, it is not reef safe.


Hawaii’s Sunscreen Ban to Protect Reefs

Besides lack of regulation, another issue is Hawaii's 2021 ban on oxybenzone  and octinoxate, two sunscreen chemicals most well-known to damage coral systems and marine life. An admirable first step, the ban created two dangerous myths:


Myth 1) These chemicals are ok for humans, just bad for reefs.

Please remember ALL petrochemicals, not just oxybenzone and octinoxate, do significant long term harm to the health of consumers who use them. In short, petrochemicals are toxic to human biosystems.


A single use of petrochemical sunscreen destroys the benefits of an entire year’s worth of organic eating. Want the math behind this statement? Just email mac@ and we'll send it to you.


Myth 2) Only Oxybenzone and Octinoxate harm reefs.

ALL petrochemicals, including avobenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and tinosorb, among many others, are harmful to marine life, including coral systems.

Unfortunately, the ban has given petrochemical sunscreen makers the idea that simply replacing the banned chemicals with other petrochemicals (that are almost identical from a molecular structure standpoint and that have their own toxicity issues that are just less studied for now) and market them as “reef safe.”

safe sunscreen

Non-Nano Zinc Oxide Sunscreen is Reef Safe

The best sunscreen active ingredient, for both human and marine biosystems, is non-nano zinc oxide, and by a wide margin.

Zinc oxide is a powdered mineral that doesn’t dissolve in seawater, and in its non-nano variety (meaning its particles are all large enough to not seep through skin pores or enter marine biosystems) it rapidly settles to the seafloor and becomes an inert part of the sediment.

In constrast, NANO zinc oxide particles (smaller than 100 nanometers) can be ingested by marine animals including coral, causing internal damage, and when washed off into ocean, they can react with UV rays to generate hydrogen peroxide which can be toxic to phytoplankton, a vital nutrient to many reef and coral species.


Know Your Sunscreen. Trust Your Sunscreen.

Read your sunscreen ingredients, including the “inactive” ones. Research and know each ingredient, then either decide for yourself if it’s reef safe, or better yet, ask us and we’ll give you straightforward guidance, whether it’s for our sunscreen or not. If a sunscreen’s good for you and our marine biosystems, we’ll tell you so.



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.



What is reef safe sunscreen?

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