How to Shop for Sustainable, Reef-Safe Sunscreen Plus the 5 Best to Try

best sustainable sunscreen
Courtesy Ron Lach | Pexels

Protect your skin and the planet with these sustainable reef-safe sunscreens—perfect for every skin type.

Ask any dermatologist and they’ll tell you that you should wear sunscreen—rain or shine. (That’s right, you can still get sunburned on a cloudy day.) From appearing too chalky to being too greasy, the countless sunscreen products on the market can make finding the best one for your skin type tricky. Worry not—we’ve found the best sunscreens under the sun. And the best part? They’re sustainable, too.

What to know about sunscreen

Don’t let the sunscreen marketers of the world fool you. Unless you’re a vampire, getting a little sun each day is actually good for you. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, moderate sun exposure has many benefits, including helping the body produce vitamin D. 

The fat-soluble vitamin helps the body absorb and retain calcium and phosphorus, both of which are crucial for building strong bones. Studies show that vitamin D may help minimize the growth of cancer cells, mitigate infections, and reduce inflammation. Vitamin D deficiency has even been linked to depression. Exposure to sunlight can help increase the production of serotonin in the brain—a chemical that’s associated with boosting moods.

So, how much sun is too much?​​ Well, that all depends on your skin type. For example, according to the National Library of Medicine, ultraviolet radiation becomes harmful to those with fair skin after about five to ten minutes. Those with dark skin tend to get sunburned after more than 60 minutes of sunlight exposure.

sustainable beach essentials
Courtesy Jakob Owens | Unsplash

Too much sun exposure can cause ultraviolet radiation to penetrate the skin’s inner layers, damaging cells. This can lead to discoloration of the skin, premature aging, and even skin cancer. One in three cancers diagnosed is skin cancer, according to the World Health Organization.

When shopping for sunscreens, the American Academy of Dermatology Association recommends opting for those that offer broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays, two types of ultraviolet radiation. Dermatologists also recommend using a sunscreen that has an SPF, or Sun Protection Factor, of at least 30.

Are all sunscreens sustainable?

You may want to take a long, hard look at your sunscreen’s ingredients list because not all sunscreens are created equal. 

The two main types of sunscreen are mineral sunscreen (also known as physical sunscreen) and chemical sunscreen. The former features minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as active ingredients, which help to form a physical barrier between the body and the sun—reflecting light rays away from the skin. On the other hand, chemical sunscreen acts like a sponge—absorbing sunlight and converting it into heat, which is then released throughout the skin. 

The active ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, such as oxybenzone and avobenzone, can be harsh on the skin, making them problematic for those with sensitive skin. A 2019 ruling by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration updated sunscreen requirements, classifying only two of the 16 active ingredients—zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—commonly found in sunscreens as “safe and effective.” The ruling also found that the skin can absorb certain sunscreen ingredients, dispersing them throughout the body.

In addition to causing skin allergies, sunscreen ingredients can be toxic to the planet. Studies show that oxybenzone and octinoxate are harmful to coral reefs. As a result, in 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing these ingredients.

These sustainable sunscreens deserve a spot in your beach bag

Shopping for sunscreen products that are gentle on your skin—and the planet—doesn’t have to be complicated. Here are five sustainable sunscreen products to shop.

1. MARA Algae + Zinc Sea Kale Sunscreen Serum SPF 30

This 100 percent mineral broad-spectrum sunscreen is great for all skin types, especially those that have dry or sensitive skin. Featuring ingredients like blue sea kale, algae, and hemp seed, this oil-based facial serum hydrates the skin without leaving any white residue behind.

2. The Organic Pharmacy Cellular Protection Sunscreen

Available in SPF 30 and 50, this mineral sunscreen is ultra-hydrating. Suitable for children, babies, and those with sensitive skin, it’s clinically proven to increase the skin’s moisture by 18 percent, according to the company. Featuring aloe, shea butter, and calendula, this skin protectant is also safe for coral reefs.

3. Priori Skincare Tetra Broad Spectrum SPF 55

With 80 minutes of water resistance, this cruelty-free sunscreen is totally beach-approved. It’s also formulated with the brand’s Universal Skin Tint, for an added summer golden glow.

4. KYPRIS – Pot of Shade: Heliotropic Facial Sunscreen + Primer SPF 30

Made for all skin types, especially those that are sensitive, this facial sunscreen features sustainably sourced ingredients like sea algae, sunflower, and tamanu oil. Vegan and cruelty-free, this skin savior is free from synthetic fragrances, too. (Follow a day in the sun with the Kypris Cerulean Soothing Hydration Recovery Mask.)

5. U Beauty Multimodal Defender SPF 30

In addition to protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays, this cream also works to even skin tones and prevent discoloration. Featuring vitamin C, hyaluronic acid, shea butter, and jojoba and almond oils, you can nourish, hydrate, plump, and protect your skin all at once.

For more sustainable beach essentials, click here for Ethos’ complete guide to eco swimwear.

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