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Reef safe, organic, chemical free…there are a lot of buzzwords floating around when it comes to sunscreen.
And since the state of Hawaii passed a bill in May 2018 banning the sale of sunscreens containing chemicals harmful to coral reefs (it goes into effect January 1, 2021), I’ve gotten so many questions about which sunscreens are banned, what the best reef safe sunscreen are, and what this means for visitors.
Why the change?
The bill bans two ingredients/chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, which help filter UV rays, but have also been found to cause bleaching, deformities, DNA damage, and death in coral when deposited in bodies of water.
One study has estimated that as much as 412 pounds of sunscreen is deposited daily at Hanauma Bay on Oahu which is one of the most popular snorkeling spots in Hawaii.
Obviously, there are supporters and critics of the bill/bad. Some critics say the limited options for sunscreen now available will result in less sunscreen being used while others say that the list of ingredients banned isn’t extensive enough.
What does reef safe mean?
The same implies that “reef safe” sunscreens are made of ingredients that are, well, safe for coral reefs. However, the phrase “reef safe” isn’t regulated and like the phrases “organic” or “clean” and is pretty open to interpretation.
For the purpose of this post, I’m defining reef safe sunscreen as sunscreen that doesn’t contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. While there’s a much longer list of chemicals that may be linked to being harmful to reefs, this is a starting point.
My favorite reef safe sunscreens
I’ve tested out quite a few reef safe sunscreens in the past few months, and here are my thoughts…
Coola: Coola is hands down my favorite sunscreen brand right now. It’s the perfect blend of an organic/natural sunscreen that keeps nasty chemicals to a minimum but is also convenient to apply. You know what they say…the best sunscreen is the one you’ll wear. And I LOVE Coola’s Eco-Luxe Spray (the guava mango scent is my favorite). It’s reef safe (does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate) and it’s a CONTINUOUS, CLEAR spray. This is huge to me. There are a few cheaper, organic spray sunscreens (some that are reef safe), but they spray on white and you have to rub it in. I don’t know about you, but I don’t have time for that at the beach. Yes, Coola products aren’t cheap, but I’ve found them to be a home run because of the ingredients/convenience factor.
Also, their face sunscreens are one of the few that doesn’t make me break out. I have pretty sensitive skin and anything with zinc oxide is not my friend.
SunBum: SunBum has become a bit controversial lately, but they’re still a favorite of mine. They used to call themselves “reef safe,” but they’ve been called out on that since they do contain some chemicals that may be harmful to reefs (however they don’t include oxybenzone or octinoxate). This is my favorite lotion sunscreen because it goes on so smooth and smells really nice. They also make a continuous spray version which is somewhat more convenient, but it sprays on white and you still have to rub it in.
They have started making a mineral line, which is completely reef safe (it basically only contains zinc oxide) but like all mineral sunscreens it has a bright white tint which even when rubbed in tends to make skin appear a little ghostly. I’m not a fan of that however I do like to keep a small bottle of it in my beach bag to double up on areas that burn easily (shoulder tops) or patches that have already had a little too much sun.
Pacifica: Pacifica is a beauty brand that’s known for being pretty clean and organic so it’s no surprise that their sunscreen line doesn’t contain a lot of harsh chemicals. It’s a mineral line (which I said above I’m not a big fan of because of the whitish glow they create), however they make a “bronzing” version that’s tinted so it doesn’t have that problem. It kind of reminds me of those “spray on panty hose” products that make your legs look all smooth and silky ; ) This spray (still has to be rubbed in) is a good option for a mineral sunscreen, but I will warn you that it can be a little messy if you’re wearing a light colored swim suit.
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What does all of this mean for visitors to Hawaii?
Well, for sure it means that starting on January 1, 2021 you won’t be able to buy sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate (which is most cheap sunscreen brands that you’ll find at Target or the drugstore) in Hawaii. And I’d expect a lot of retailers to start making the transition well before then.
As of now, the ban only affects the sell and distribution of sunscreens with these ingredients within the state and doesn’t ban tourists from bringing them into the state. So technically you could still buy your usual sunscreen on the mainland and bring it with you, however given the spirit of the ban and what it’s trying to protect I would strongly advise against wearing it while swimming in the ocean (however there are a lot of other scenarios in Hawaii where you’ll need sunscreen that don’t include swimming in the ocean).
If purchasing “reef safe” sunscreen is going to be cost prohibitive for you, here’s my best advice: schedule your snorkeling time early in the morning (when the majority of boat tours go out anyways), and make good use of a swim shirt. I’m leery of any sunscreen that claims to be waterproof anyways, so an hour or so of time in the ocean early in the morning (especially with a sun shirt on) shouldn’t make or break you.
Also, it will be interesting to see what adjustments some of the major sunscreen brands make to their ingredient lists over the next two years to accommodate this ban.
So if you’re anything like me (yeah I’d like to be a more environmentally conscious and make smarter choices concerning the products I use, but it’s kind of overwhelming), consider trying out one of these sunscreens a good place to start!
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