Sunscreen for Hawaii: Reef-safe sunscreen buying guide

The Hawaiian sunscreen ban only recently took effect and is already being tightened up with more ingredients added to the black list. More countries and states are taking the same measures and request or demand visitors to only use reef-safe sunscreen. But which specific brands sell approved sunscreen for Hawaii? And why should you bother buying reef-safe sunscreen? Find out what the fuss is about and how sunscreens actually harm the reefs. Plus, learn the difference between reef-friendly sunscreen and reef-safe sunscreen. Finally, copy our handy ingredient checklist as well as our product list of reef-safe sunscreens for Hawaii and other snorkel destinations. We’ll be updating this list on a regular basis and therefore strongly recommend pinning or bookmarking this page for future reference.

Man on surfboard over the Hawaiian reefs
Fish hiding in the coral reefs


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This article is based on the information that we found from various reliable sources, the main ones being the Haereticus lab (environmental laboratory), Biorius (European cosmetic regulation expert bureau), the NOAA (American National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), the Safe Sunscreen Council (coalition of companies on a mission to raise awareness within the skincare industry and support the development and adoption of safer ingredients) and the Environmental Working Group (team of scientists, policy experts, lawyers and communications that stands up for public health in the USA). We’ve done our very best to give you the full picture yet structured in a way that makes it clear and easy to understand.

Short on time? Then here’s our selection of reef-safe sunscreens for Hawaii that are also skin-safe:

Why reefs are important

It’s widely known that coral reefs form a valuable ecosystem for marine life and that they are an important indicator for the health of the oceans. Another vital function of coral reefs is the protection of shorelines. Reefs act as a barrier for the strongest waves and storms thus preventing shoreline erosion.

How most sunscreens harm the reefs

Corals live in symbiosis with algae, who serve as the corals’ primary food source and give them color. But when corals get stressed, they expel these algae and, as a result, lose their nutrients and color. This leaves them vulnerable and susceptible to deadly diseases. Coral bleaching can only be reversed if the stress is short-lived.

We all know that global warming causes coral bleaching but the scientific insights from the past years have indicated that pollution from sunscreen contributes to the problem. The toxic chemicals in sunscreen accumulate in the corals’ tissues, induce bleaching and reduce coral reproduction as well as immunity.

In addition, other marine life such as algae, urchins, shellfish, fish and even marine mammals are affected by sunscreen.

Infographic that demonstrates the importance of reef safe sunscreen for Hawaii and other destinations
Courtesy of NOAA

The ban of harmful sunscreens in Hawaii and across the globe

A prompt and radical reaction is mostly needed at the tourist-frequented reefs which are most affected by sunscreen-induced coral bleaching.

Some of the countries and states that are faced with this problem have already taken action, Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands, Bonaire, Aruba, and Palau being the forerunners. Key West desperately tried to do the same to protect its coral reefs but their efforts were struck down by the Florida Legislature.
Other initiatives are taken on a more local level. In Mexico, for example, reef-safe sunscreens are required in most of the natural water parks such as Xel HaXcaret ParkGarrafon Natural Reef Park, Cozumel’s Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park.

Then again, why wait for regulations to catch up? If we all start changing our behavior right now then we might win some valuable time in restoring the coral reefs. So, let’s be part of the solution instead of the problem.

Sunscreens containing oxybenzone octinoxate are forbidden in this Hawaii reef

The COVID-19 pandemic offered a unique opportunity for scientists to study the resilience of coral reefs. Hawaii’s popular snorkeling site Hanauma Bay has flourished during this time, which is a hopeful sign that suggests that it’s not too late to restore the reefs.

It comes as no surprise that the State of Hawaii will regulate the sale of sunscreens even more. Whereas now only oxybenzone and octinoxate are banned, the second set of restrictions will also target sunscreens containing homosalate, octocrylene, and octisalate. These new regulations for reef-safe sunscreens in Hawaii will take effect in January 2023.

Sunscreen types and ingredients explained

Sunscreens consist of two types of ingredients:

  1. Active ingredients: These offer the actual UV-protection.
  2. Passive ingredients: These make up the carrier lotion and include emollients, antioxidants, preservatives, fragrances and other additives.

Based on the active ingredients, two main types of sunscreen can be defined:

Chemical or Organic* sunscreens

  • Absorb the UV radiation.
  • Active ingredients penetrate the skin.
  • Thinner, more aesthetically pleasing.



  • Not reef-safe: The active ingredients all together.
  • Sometimes zinc or titanium might also be mentioned in the ingredient list but if these are not mentioned first up, then this is a chemical sunscreen regardless.

*Labeled organic because they contain organic chemicals

Physical or Mineral sunscreens

  • Deflect the UV radiation.
  • Active ingredients don’t penetrate the skin.
  • Thicker, leaving a white and milky trace.
    To counter this problem, the particle size of some active ingredients has been reduced to nano-size (less than 35 nanometers in diameter) and the sunscreen comes in a tinted version.
  • Not reef-safe: The nano-particles can cause cause oxidative stress in invertebrates in sunlight (basically blowing up their cells). Only particles larger than 100 (and preferably even 120+) nanometers in diameter are considered reef-safe.

Reef-friendly vs reef-safe sunscreens

The reef-friendly discussion mainly evolves around the active ingredients while the reef-safe discussion also takes into account the inactive ingredients. A clear, universal label would make it so much easier for us, consumers, to make an informed decision and purchase. Unfortunately though, since the terms reef-friendly and reef-safe are not regulated, there’s no other solution but to examine the ingredient list.

Sunscreen ingredients to avoid

Here’s a – non-exhaustive! – overview of ingredients to avoid. It’s based on various sources, such as the HEL-list from the Haereticus lab (environmental laboratory) and the Biorius (European cosmetic regulation expert bureau) checklist to name a few. The ingredients that are banned in sunscreens for Hawaii are marked as such.

Avoiding the following ingredients doesn’t only help in saving the reefs, it also helps you in staying healthy because many of these ingredients have been proven to be absorbed into the bloodstream where they bio-accumulate and disrupt the hormone function.

Tip: If you’re wondering about the specific harmful effects on your health, then you might want to check the Inci decoder to find out exactly what every ingredient is and how it behaves.

Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3)
→ Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens that offers both UVA and UVB protection
→ Banned in Hawaii as of 2021

Octinoxate (Octyl Methoxycinnamate)
→ Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens that offers UVB protection
→ Banned in Hawaii as of 2021

Octocrylene
→ Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens that offers UVB protection
→ Banned in Hawaii as of 2023

Avobenzone (Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane)
→ Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens that offers UVA protection
→ Banned in Hawaii as of 2023

Homosalate (Homomenthyl Salicylate)
→ Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens that offers UVB protection

4-Methylbenzylidene Camphor (4MBC)
→ Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens

Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA) derivatives such as Ethylhexyl Dimethyl PABA and PEG-25 PABA
→ Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens
→ No longer commonly used in US sunscreens

Octisalate (Ethylhexyl Salicylate)
→ Active ingredient in chemical sunscreens

Nano and/or coated zinc oxide
→ Active ingredient in mineral sunscreens
→ Nano zinc oxide = Particles smaller than 100 nanometers in diameter (sometimes labeled as clear zinc or non-whitening)
→ Coated = Wrapped with potentially harmful ingredients such as silicone or silicone derivatives

Nano titanium dioxide
→ Active ingredient in mineral sunscreens
→ Nano titanitum dioxide = Particles smaller than 100 nanometers in diameter (sometimes labeled as clear zinc)
→ In its nano form, this ingredient forms hydrogen peroxide as a reaction to warm seawater but in non-nano form, it’s a reef-safe option

Paraben such as propylparaben, benzylparaben, methylparaben, ethylparaben and butylparaben
→ Inactive ingredient: Preservative
→ Look for paraben-free products, not only in sunscreen but in all skincare products

Phthalates
→ Inactive ingredient: Found in synthetic fragrances
→ Look for fragrance free product or, if you really prefer some fragrance, for phthalate-free or natural fragrances

Triclosan
→ Inactive ingredient: Preservative

Silicones such as dimethicone and silicone-based substances such as cylcopentasiloxane and cyclomethicone
→ Inactive ingredient: Creates a smooth feel 

An important nuance: The fact that aforementioned ingredients harm the reef has been scientifically proven or is at least highly suspected. However, that doesn’t necessarily mean that all other ingredients are safe per definition, just that there’s no proof that they harm the reefs.

Sunscreen ingredients that are considered reef-safe

It’s clear that chemical sunscreens are proven to be most harmful and that only mineral based sunscreens, with non-nano zinc oxide and non-nano titanium dioxide, are considered reef-safe:

Non-nano uncoated zinc oxide mineral sunscreen
→ Active ingredient in mineral sunscreens
→ Non-nano = Particles larger than 100 (and preferably even 120+) nanometers in diameter
→ Uncoated = Zinc oxide in its purest form, not coated with potentially harmful ingredients such as silicone or silicone derivatives

Non-nano titanium dioxide mineral sunscreen
→ Active ingredient in mineral sunscreens
→ Non-nano = Particles larger than 100 (and preferably even 120+) nanometers in diameter
→ We found many claims that this ingredient forms hydrogen peroxide as a reaction to warm seawater BUT learned, from further research, that this only applies to the nano form and not the non-nano form (see here and here)

Other aspects to take into account

In addition to the ingredients, there are some other factors to consider when shopping for reef-safe sunscreen.

  • Choose the vehicle type wisely. We all like the convenience of sunscreen sprays, right? Well, this convenience comes at a cost because only part of the microscopic chemicals that are being released during a spraying session actually reach your skin. The other part lands on the sand and eventually washes into the ocean where – you guessed it – the chemicals end up damaging the reef. Another risk of sunscreen sprays is inhalation which could potentially lead to health problems (especially in children). Use a rub-on lotion instead: it tends to provide better protection and sticks to the skin instead of washing into the ocean.

Sunscreen spray

Sunscreen lotion or stick

  • Never compromise on water-resistance. The most reef-friendly and best protecting sunscreens have a water resistant power of 80 minutes, guaranteeing that the product will stay on your skin instead of washing off in the water. And since these values are regulated, you can rest assured that the water resistance mentioned on the product is truthful.

Water resistant for less than 80 minutes

Water resistance rating of 80 minutes

  • Choose a SPF that aligns with your priorities. Did you know that Europe, Asia and Australia cap SPF values at 50+? And that SPF 30 blocks 96.7% of UV radiation while a SPF 50 blocks 98%? So, essentially, the added value of a SPF 50 over a SPF 30 is pretty low while the extra protection involves a higher concentration of chemicals which may pose a health risk. Reef-safety wise, SPF 30 is the better choice but it’s up to you to decide whether you’d be comfortable using a SPF lower than 50.

Higher than SPF 30 (the added protection is just 1% but comes with far more chemicals)

SPF 30 (lower not recommended for optimal protection)

Certifications

Due to the lack of regulation and, as a result, the lack of a clear universal label, some organizations are coming up with their own reef-friendly or reef-safe label. But, again here, these labels are not regulated. The only cerfitications we are inclined to trust are the following:

Make sure to buy broad-spectrum sunscreen

Always look for sunscreen that is broad-spectrum, which means that it offers protection against both UVB and UVA radiation.

  • UVB rays only penetrate the top layer of the skin. They cause the most visible damage in the form of sunburn and alter the skin cells in such way that it may lead to skin cancer. The SPF on sunscreens refers to its protection against this type of radiation only.
  • UVA rays penetrate deeper into the skin and are present 365 a year, even on cloudy days. They cause invisible damage such as premature skin aging but also skin cell mutations that can lead to skin cancer. The SPF on a sunscreen offers no indication of its effectiveness against this type of radiation. So, what does?

    → In the USA, only the broad-spectrum seal guarantees protection against UVA radiation as well as UVB radiation. But still, the exact degree of protection remains a bit obscure and often, subpar compared to other regions worldwide.

    → In the European Union, the UVA seal guarantees a UVA protection factor of at least 1/3 of the SPF value. Standards are much higher, to the extent that many FDA-approved broad-spectrum sunscreens do not meet the requirement for EU approval.

    → In Asian countries, particularly in South-Korea and Japan, the PA label indicates the UVA protection factor, ranging from PA+ to PA++++.

Basket with different types of suncreen, both chemical such as Banana Boat and natural mineral sunscreen, on a yacht

In relation to the UVA protection, the list of approved active sunscreen ingredients is more extensive and advanced in the European Union, Asia and even Canada than it is in the USA. European ingredients such as the chemical compound Mexoryl are proven to block UVA rays much better than the reef-unsafe Avobenzone (that will be banned from the Hawaiian sunscreen market as of 2023).

Another star ingredient in European suncare is Tinosorb M (Methylene Bis-Benzotriazolyl Tetramethylbutylphenol), which is a crossover between the traditional chemical and mineral ingredients in the sense that it not only absorbs the radiation (like a chemical sunscreen does) but also deflects a fraction of radiation (like a mineral sunscreen does). Due to American FDA regulations, these advanced products are not available for sale in the US. Therefore, the ones that you’ll find on Amazon are most likely Americanized versions that lack the star ingredients.

For daily sun protection or a mountainous vacation, European and Asian products are by far the better choice. Then again, their new generation of chemical compounds may pose a threat to the reefs. More research is required but, until then, the only reef-friendly sunscreens for Hawaii and other tropical beach destinations are mineral-based.

The best reef-safe sunscreens for Hawaii and beyond

Based on the many reef safety criteria ánd on the skin-friendly characteristics, we made a personal selection of sunscreens for Hawaii and other destinations around the world.

Even though we mentioned before that an SPF 30 is good enough for adults, I can’t help aiming for a slightly higher SPF sunscreen for the kids, albeit one that still ticks all important boxes: safe for the skin, offering excellent protection and reef safe. Here are some of the sunscreens that fit the bill:

And for a quick touch-up now and then, for example when the kids have been swimming for half an hour or at breakfast:

Sunscreen checker: Check if your sunscreen is effective, non-toxic and reef-friendly

If you consider buying another FDA-approved sunscreen brand or product, then you can check its effectiveness (UVA/UVB balance) as well as the presence of possible toxic ingredients on this EWG webpage. You can either look up your sunscreen in the list or use the search function. Another amazing reference source is the INCI decoder, which also allows to look up sunscreens and analyzes their ingredient list for you. It doesn’t rate all ingredients but it does clearly indicate the function of every ingredient in the sunscreen.

Let me demonstrate how to read the result by means of 2 examples:

Example 1: Is Raw Elements reef safe?

Here’s the EWG result for both the Raw Elements Face + Body Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 and the Raw Elements Face + Body Sunscreen Tin SPF 30:

Health check for a Hawaii approved sunscreen
Sunscreen's UV protection analysis
Sunscreen's UV protection efficacy
Source: EWG
Chemical analysis for a reef safe sunscreen for friendly

It’s clear that, according to the EWG checker, this sunscreen is effective and safe for your health. The ingredient list indicates that it doesn’t contain any of the known reef damaging ingredients and that the zinc particles are non-nano. The ingredient list is also pretty short, which is a good indication for a no-frills sunscreen. Every ingredient is also explained and scored (the lower the number, the safer the ingredient).

This is what the result of the Inci decoder check for this product look like:

Ingredient list of an approved reef-safe sunscreen for Hawaii
Ingredient detail of a mineral sunscreen compound
Ingredient analysis of an approved reef-safe sunscreen for Hawaii
Source: Inci decoder
Allowed reef safe sunscreen for Hawaii

So, it’s safe to conclude that both the Raw Elements Face + Body Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 and the Raw Elements Face + Body Sunscreen Tin SPF 30 are in fact reef safe sunscreens for Hawaii. Overall, all Raw Elements sunscreens scored remarkably well both on skin-friendliness and reef-safety.

Example 2: Is Sun Bum reef safe?

Here’s the EWG result for the Baby Bum Mineral Sunscreen Lotion Fragrance Free SPF 50:

Health check for a Hawaii approved sunscreen
Sunscreen's UV protection analysis
Sunscreen's UV protection efficacy
Source: EWG
Chemical analysis for a reef safe sunscreen for Hawaii

It’s clear that, according to the EWG checker, this particular sunscreen is effective and safe for your health (except for one that’s in the grey zone). The ingredient list indicates that it doesn’t contain any of the known reef damaging ingredients and that the zinc particles are non-nano.

This is what the result of the Inci decoder check for this product look like:

Ingredient list of an approved reef-friendly sunscreen for Hawaii
Ingredient analysis of an approved reef-friendly sunscreen for Hawaii
Source: Inci decoder

Approved reef safe sunscreen for Hawaii

So, it’s safe to conclude that the Baby Bum Mineral Sunscreen Lotion Fragrance Free SPF 50 is in fact a reef safe sunscreen for Hawaii. However, that doesn’t mean that all Sun Bum sunscreens are reef-safe and skin-friendly. In reality, most of the Sun Bum sunscreens aren’t…yet. But the company is clearly aware of the new standards and is working hard to up its game.

Other ways to help the reefs

Fish on a coral in the ocean to emphasize the importance of using reef friendly sunscreen for Hawaii

While it’s been proven that some sunscreens damage the coral, there aren’t any sunscreens proven to be safe to coral. Buying a reef-safe sunscreen is a great start but our responsibility doesn’t end there. Here are some other ways to help keep the reefs safe and/or give them a chance to revive:

  • A more efficient way to protect your skin from the sun and the reefs from chemicals, is wearing a long-sleeved rash guard. These sun shirts usually come in a UPF (UV-protective fabric) of 50+ and we always wear them at the beach and in the ocean. The kids actually prefer sun-protective clothing over sunscreen because it allows them to get into the water so much quicker. That’s especially true for little girls, since the sunscreen needs to be applied under the straps and around the edges of their bathing suit. Personally, I find that a rash guards does a much better job than sunscreen in protecting my back and shoulders when in the water. They offer convenience without compromising on style.
  • Avoid touching, kicking or standing on coral when you go snorkeling or diving.
  • Pick up after yourself on the beach. When litter is carried out to sea by the tides or picked up by the wind, it becomes a potential hazard for marine life.
  • Activate your favorite brand to take responsibility. Let them know that you, as a customer, expect more commitment.
  • The fact that you’re taking the time to read this article, demonstrates that you’re eager to educate yourself on the subject. Now share your knowledge with friends and family. Inspire others to start using reef-safe sunscreen in Hawaii and at any beach destination around the world. Or just share this article with them. 🙂

Reef-safe sunscreens: Which is your personal favorite?

That’s it for this comprehensive guide on reef-safe sunscreens. We truly hope that you feel informed and confident about which sunscreen to buy and why it matters. Now we can’t wait to find out all about your favorite reef-safe sunscreen for Hawaii or another tropical destination. The comment box is all yours. And if there’s anything more you’d like to add to this reef-safe sunscreen guide, feel free to reach out.

Pinning this post would be much appreciated!

Fish on a coral in the ocean near Hawaii
Underwater world with coral and fish
Underwater view of red fish and coral

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