How to Actually Buy Non-Toxic Sunscreen

Here's the truth about what sunscreens are doing to your body — and the water.

Photo: Getty Images

It's warm outside, and people are finally breaking free from their quarantine walls. Even airlines have seen a major uptick in travel, as people make up for a year without it.

But don't forget: While the world was locked up for a year and a half, the ocean thrived without tourism. You didn't need a worldwide pandemic to tell you that tourism affects ocean life; there have been plenty of studies about how sunscreen harms coral reefs. One study even estimated that approximately 14,000 pounds of sunscreen are deposited into the ocean every year, according to The Ocean Foundation. And coral reefs are extremely important to the ocean's ecosystem — they basically have superpowers. They're the home to 25 percent of the ocean's fish, they protect coastlines from erosion and storms, and more than half a billion people depend on reefs for food and income.

Craig Downs, Ph.D., executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, started studying coral reef deaths in the Virgin Islands National Park in 2004. "We were investigating why coral reefs were dying in the park, and one day we couldn't figure out because there were no boats in [the water] and no homes in the watershed," says Downs. "It should've been a healthy reef and yet, it was pretty much dead." While he and a few other scientists were chatting, a local told them it was because of the tourists that came in on the cruise ships. Locals would notice that once they left the water would have an "iridescent" sheen on it because of the sunscreen in the water and that they believed sunscreen was the culprit of the reef death. "And so that began our investigation into what they call 'personal care products,' including sunscreens and their impact to the environment," says Downs. A few popular tourist beach destinations are taking notice, and some are banning certain types of sunscreen. For example, the state of Hawaii has banned the sale of sunscreens containing four different chemicals known to impact the reef habitat.

And some sunscreens aren't just bad for coral reefs; they can also be harmful to your body. One of the most common toxic ingredients in sunscreen is oxybenzone, a chemical that research shows is a possible endocrine disrupter (meaning it can mess with your body's natural hormones), and is linked to a birth defect called Hirschsprung's disease (children with this condition are born without nerves in the lower colon or rectum, preventing normal digestion). So, really, there's no excuse: You need to care what's in your sunscreen for your health as well as that of the planet.

Another scary part? Choosing healthier sunscreens isn't just important when you're diving into a natural body of water like an ocean, river, lake, or pond. "It should always be taken into account whether you are swimming, or showering," says Downs. "Anything that goes into the sewer (the etymology of this is seaward), everything you dispose of, goes to the sea. We just submitted a scientific paper for publication that beach showers are big sources of sunscreen pollution. So if it doesn't come off of you in the water, it will wash off of you in the shower — whether that shower is an outside shower, or in your bathroom."

That said, finding a sunscreen that's both good for you and the ocean can feel like finding the sunglasses you dropped in murky water.

Is Biodegradable Sunscreen the Best Choice?

When it comes to picking out an environmentally safe sunscreen, "biodegradable" might seem like the crème de la crème. After all, if it can decompose — like any other organic matter — it must be pretty "natural," right?

"People think of biodegradable as being something that is benign," says Downs, but that's not necessarily the case. Just because something is labeled "biodegradable" doesn't guarantee safety for you or the Earth. Biodegradable technically means that a substance is able to be decomposed by bacteria and other living organisms, but even some of the most harmful chemicals in sunscreens, such as oxybenzone, are biodegradable.

What About Reef-Safe Sunscreen?

Unfortunately, there isn't a lot of regulation when it comes to marketing a sunscreen as "reef safe," says Downs. That means even if a sunscreen is labeled as "reef safe," there's no guarantee that it actually won't harm the reefs. The exception? There are some certifications — such as the Biorius Reef-Friendly Certification, which guarantees products are formulated without certain harmful chemicals and ingredients — you can look for to ensure the brand you're buying from isn't just greenwashing their products. Keep reading for Downs' tips for buying healthy sunscreens that are as safe as possible for reefs and aquatic life — whether or not they're specifically labeled with "reef safe."

How to Buy the Best Sunscreen for Your Body and the Earth

Instead of looking for biodegradable sunscreen or reef-safe sunscreen, what you really want is a non-toxic, mineral-based product, according to Downs.

Non-toxic means the ingredients are not poisonous to you or the environment. So, while Downs suggests definitely keeping biodegradability in mind when it comes to the product packaging, (i.e. Raw Element's sunscreen stick is fully recyclable and completely compostable) when it comes to picking out your next sunscreen, non-toxic and mineral-based is the way to go. "You definitely don't want [to use] things that are toxic, whether they're biodegradable or not biodegradable," says Downs. (

Avoid the 3 "Os"

When looking for a non-toxic sunscreen, use the same rule of thumb as you do for foods. "Look at the ingredient list, and if you can't pronounce it, then I think you should be concerned," says Downs. Namely, you want to avoid the three Os: oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate, he says. Oxybenzone is detailed above, but octocrylene and octinoxate are just as bad (even though they're lesser known); the two chemicals act as photosensitizers, meaning when they're exposed to UV light, they actually increase the risks of skin cancer and premature aging, according to research published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology the very things you wear sunscreen to avoid! (

Pick Minerals — But with Caution

When it comes to looking for safe ingredients for your sunscreen, two of the most well-known minerals are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. But it's not as simple as grabbing sunscreens with those included. To protect yourself and marine life, it's important to make sure the minerals are not made with nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Nanosized minerals are broken down into super tiny particles and can make sunscreens easier to rub into your skin; however, Downs found that nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide "can be toxic to aquatic organisms like fish and coral, crabs, muscles, oysters, and so they have an adverse effect in the environment." The caveat here is that brands often don't tell consumers on their packaging whether the minerals in their sunscreen are nanosized. If it's trickier to rub in and sits on the top of your skin, that's usually a good sign. (

Look for Certifications

To make your life easier, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) has a sunscreen database so you can look up certain brands to see their impact on your body and the environment. Downs and his team also came up with a Protect Land and Sea Certification stamp, which guarantees a product is free of 13 different chemicals (known as the HEL list), that pose a known risk to ecosystems, including oxybenzone and nanoparticles of zinc and titanium dioxide. They did all of their own testing of products to make sure they were truly free of these chemicals. And it's a good thing they did: "We found so many products that did not have oxybenzone [listed] in their ingredients, but it was in their product, and we think it's related to the cross-contamination of their manufacturing," he says. (Reminder: A bunch of sunscreens also recently came under fire for being contaminated with the carcinogen benzene.) The aforementioned Biorius certification also guarantees products are formulated without 12 different chemicals or nanomaterials.

The Safest Sunscreens You Can Buy

The easiest way to reduce the eco and health risks associated with your sun protection? Skip sunscreen in favor of a UPF sun shirt. "I know it's not sexy," says Downs, but by wearing a sun shirt, you're reducing your sunscreen pollution by about 50 percent.

Otherwise, Downs recommends sticking to products approved by the EWG and his Protect Land and Sea certification because there isn't a lot of regulation with other packaging claims. See below for some especially safe body- and eco-friendly sunscreen picks.

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Stream2Sea Reef Safe Sport Mineral Sunscreen


This Stream2Sea SPF 30 sunscreen gets the stamp of approval from Downs' Protect Land and Sea Certification.

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Badger Clear Zinc Sunscreen Cream SPF 40


Many of Badger's products get top marks from the EWG, and this particular sunscreen is certified by the Protect Land and Sea Certification as well.

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Odacité Sun Guardian Day Creme SPF 30


Vegan beauty brand Odacité's luxe Sun Guardian Day Crème with SPF 30 also has the Protect Land and Sea Certification.

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Raw Elements Eco Form Sunscreen SPF 30


This Raw Elements sunscreen gets top marks from the EWG and contains non-nano particles of zinc oxide that sit on top of skin to reflect the sun's rays. The packaging is recyclable, but if you're looking to skip the plastic bottle, try one of the brand's equally safe sunscreens that come in reusable, recyclable metal tins.

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Suntegrity Natural Mineral Body Sunscreen SPF 30


Suntegrity scores the highest possible score from the EWG with many of their products, including this orange-scented antioxidant sunscreen using non-nano zinc oxide. (P.S. Antioxidants are a super important part of all skin-care routines.)

Downs says the sunscreen industry has a long way to go before he feels like he can take a vacation. "I'll sit back when companies can innovate and come with up new ingredients that are [genuinely] safe and effective, and right now, except for the mineral options, the sunscreens really are not being generally recognized as safe and effective," he says.

But that doesn't mean he doesn't have hope. "There are untouched resources, they're finding new sunscreens coming from corals and algae," says Downs. Imagine — a sunscreen made from the natural resources it's currently harming.

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