10 Ways to Become More Sunscreen Smart

Hawaiʻi recently became the first state in the nation to pass a law banning the sale of sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common ingredients known to harm coral reefs.

The law goes into effect in January of 2021, to give manufacturers and retailers time to transition to reef-safer sunscreen options.

But you certainly shouldnʻt wait to make the change. Worldwide, coral reefs are in danger, and switching to a reef-friendly sunscreen option is one way you can help.

Here are 10 practical tips to help you make the switch away from sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate.

1. Read the fine print
Read the ingredients on your current sunscreen stash and toss any that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. Check out your skin care collection, too. Moisturizers, face creams, lip balms and even some shampoos offering “SPF protection” probably contain oxybenzone and octinoxate.

2. Skip the sprays
Spray-on sunscreens often rely on chemicals like oxybenzone or octinoxate — strike one against them. When you use spray-on sunscreen at the beach, the chemicals land in the sand and eventually get washed into the ocean.  Spray on products pose an inhalation risk for you and nearby beach-goers, especially children.

3. Go for zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide
Seek out products that feature zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the primary ingredient. Both are mineral sunscreens, which sit on top of your skin (rather than get absorbed into your skin and bloodstream). Added bonus: both are water resistant! Zinc oxide is the only single active ingredient that protects against UVA and UVB rays.

4. Shop smart
At this time, many sunscreens on most store shelves contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. Some diligent label reading will help you avoid these chemicals. You may have more luck by looking for brands for babies; some are free of oxybenzone and octinoxate, but again, itʻs essential that you read the ingredient panel.

You can also check out the selection at your nearby dive shop or natural foods stores — but even there, review the ingredient labels. Or shop online, using the list of recommended products from Environmental Working Group to help guide you.

5. Considerations for babies and kids
Doctors generally advise avoiding sunscreen in favor of physical barriers like clothing and umbrellas for babies under 6 months. For older kids, visit Environmental Working Group for their list of recommended sunscreen products.

6, Donʻt like the white?
Because zinc oxide/titanium dioxide based sunscreens sit upon your skin, they can create a whitish cast, especially when wet. Wear it proudly, knowing youʻre doing your part for your skin and the coral reefs. Some manufacturers (Raw Elements and Badger) offer zinc oxide-based options with a light skin-colored tint.

7. Choose clever cover ups
Use less sunscreen with reusable clothing cover ups. Invest in a packable wide brimmed hat for all outdoor adventures. Add a rash guard (a lightweight top made of spandex or polyester) when youʻre heading into the water to protect your back, shoulders and arms. Swim tights (similar to stretchy yoga pants) can be found online in fun colors and styles — and as an added bonus, will help protect you from jellyfish stings.

8. Nano or not?
According to the Environmental Working Group, some sunscreen makers are using zinc oxide nano particles to create products that have less white tint. If youʻre concerned about nano particles and want to avoid them, look for brands advertising “non nano” zinc oxide. Learn more. 

9. Chemicals to avoid
In addition to oxybenzone and oxtinoxate, avoid other chemicals like avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene and homosalate. Environmental Working Group also recommends that you also avoid products containing retinyl palmitate (vitamin A) because “studies by federal government scientists indicate that it may trigger development of skin tumors and lesions when used on skin in the presence of sunlight. “ Read more about these chemicals here:

10. Keep corals in mind, even when far from the ocean
Even if you live away for the ocean, keep in mind that the chemicals you wash off your body eventually find their way into the water table and ultimately into the ocean.

Sunscreen chemicals can also be found in your urine within 20 minutes of application, which is why sewage is a leading carrier of these chemicals. So be sunscreen smart wherever you live, to do your part to protect your skin and coral reefs.

Read more about Maui Nui Marine Resource Councilʻs work to prevent sunscreen pollution. 


  • Lisa Woodburne 6 years ago

    How can I safely dispose of sunscreen that contains oxybenzone and oxtinoxate? I have some at home and unfortunately am just hearing about this horribly critical reef issue via “Chasing Coral”. I’m sick to my stomach that I’ve been using these products for so many years. I’m going to do better starting today. I also signed up for your email newsletter.

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