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With its pristine waters and vibrant marine ecosystems, Hawaii is a top destination for snorkeling, diving, and ocean exploration. However, the health of Hawaii’s coral reefs is under threat from a surprising source – sunscreen.

If you’re short on time, here’s a quick answer: Reef safe sunscreens in Hawaii do not contain chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate that can be harmful to coral reefs when washed off swimmers’ skin into the ocean.

Reef safe sunscreens use mineral active ingredients like non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which do not bleach or damage coral.

In this comprehensive guide, we will cover everything you need to know about reef safe sunscreens in Hawaii, from the science behind reef-damaging chemicals, to Hawaii’s groundbreaking legislation banning certain sunscreen ingredients, to recommendations on the best reef safe sunscreen brands and formulas to use for your next Hawaiian vacation.

Background on Threats to Hawaii’s Reefs from Sunscreen Chemicals

Oxybenzone and Octinoxate

Two of the most harmful chemicals found in sunscreens are oxybenzone and octinoxate. When sunscreen containing these ingredients washes off swimmers’ skin into the ocean, it acts as a toxin to coral reefs.

Studies have shown that exposure to oxybenzone causes coral bleaching and DNA damage in coral larvae, making it harder for them to grow.

Hawaii was the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, with the law taking effect January 2021. This forward-thinking regulation aims to curb the approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen entering Hawaii’s reefs each year.

Bleaching Effects on Coral

Bleached coral often dies off in great numbers, destabilizing the entire ecosystem. Fish, marine plants, and all the species that depend on the reef for food and shelter suffer too. For islands like Hawaii that depend on tourism and fishing, the economic impacts of reef declines are also substantial.

University of Hawaii researchers found that oxybenzone exposure causes coral larvae to encase themselves in their own skeletons and die. Baby coral growth declined by up to 80% in some studied species. An astounding 10% of the world’s coral reefs may be at risk just from sunscreen pollution.

Other Reef Impacts

In addition to bleaching, some other concerning effects of sunscreen chemicals on reef systems include:

  • DNA damage and deformities in developing coral
  • Disruption of coral reproduction and early life stages
  • Increased susceptibility to disease in adult coral colonies
  • Altered growth patterns
  • Bioaccumulation up the marine food chain

With over 25% of marine life dependent on reefs at some stage in their lifecycle, the stakes for Hawaii’s reef conservation efforts are high. Using reef-safe sun protection can make a meaningful difference.

Hawaii’s Pioneering Sunscreen Legislation

What Ingredients are Banned

In 2018, Hawaii passed a groundbreaking bill banning the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, aiming to protect its fragile coral reefs. These ingredients are believed to contribute to coral bleaching.

The chemicals are found in an estimated 70-80% of sunscreen products.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate have been shown in lab studies to be toxic to coral at very low levels. Research indicates the chemicals cause coral bleaching and disrupt reproductive processes. Hawaii’s reefs support over 7,000 marine species and are visited by over 9 million tourists annually.

When the Law Went Into Effect

Hawaii’s sunscreen ban went into effect January 1, 2021 after being signed into law in 2018. This gave the state’s Department of Land and Natural Resources time to educate residents and visitors about reef-safe sunscreen alternatives.

The ban applies to all new sunscreen products in Hawaii. Those containing oxybenzone or octinoxate cannot be made, sold, or distributed in the state. Retailers were given time to ensure compliance and clear existing inventory from shelves.

Enforcement and Penalties

Under Hawaii law, intentionally or knowingly selling or offering for sale banned sunscreens can result in fines of $500-$10,000 per violation. Fines escalate based on number of violations and whether the violator is an individual or business.

The state aims to educate visitors arriving at airports and hotels about reef-safe sunscreen options. Hawaii authorities conduct spot checks at major retailers and may levy fines for selling noncompliant products. However, enforcement focuses more on cooperation than punishment.

What Makes a Sunscreen Reef Safe

Mineral Active Ingredients

Reef safe sunscreens use mineral active ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide rather than chemical active ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate. Studies have shown chemical sunscreen ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate are toxic to coral reefs and contribute to coral bleaching at very low concentrations.

In contrast, mineral sunscreen ingredients sit on top of the skin and deflect and block UV rays without being absorbed into the bloodstream. This makes them safer for marine environments. For example, according to a 2021 study published in PeerJ Life & Environment, zinc oxide concentrations 2000 times higher than levels found in seawater did not impact coral larval settlement or survivorship.


Another key element in reef safe sun protection is using formulas that break down quickly in seawater rather than persisting for a long time. Oxybenzone and octinoxate can persist in marine environments for months or years, allowing them to accumulate to potentially toxic levels.

according to some sources like Surfrider Foundation, a sunscreen ingredient should degrade by at least 50% within 28 days to be considered reef safe. Quickly biodegrading formulas prevent dangerous buildup over time.

Other Eco-Friendly Considerations

Besides non-chemical actives and biodegradability, there are a few other things that make a sunscreen reef and eco-friendly according to organizations like Hawaii’s Department of Land and Natural Resources:

  • Using plant-based ingredients when possible
  • Avoiding parabens and phthalates
  • Using minimal packaging or recyclable packaging
  • Not testing on animals

Following criteria like these allows sunscreen manufacturers to create products that keep both humans and marine ecosystems safe!

Reviews of the Best Reef Safe Sunscreens


Thinksport’s reef-safe sunscreen is a top choice for eco-conscious beachgoers in Hawaii. This mineral-based formula uses non-nano zinc oxide to provide broad spectrum SPF 50 protection. It is free of oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, and other chemicals that can harm marine environments.

The lotion spreads easily without leaving behind a white cast. Its natural ingredients like sunflower oil, coconut oil, and beeswax moisturize skin while defending against UVA/UVB rays. Thinksport meets stringent standards by the Environmental Working Group for safe ingredients.

At under $15 per bottle, this sunscreen offers excellent value.


Family-owned company Badger makes one of the most affordable and environmentally-friendly reef-safe sunscreens on the market. Their mineral formulas harness the protective powers of zinc oxide in a base of organic extra virgin olive oil, beeswax, jojoba oil, and other plant ingredients.

Badger sells both tinted and clear SPF 30 and SPF 35+ sunscreens specially designed for faces and bodies. These biodegradable lotions are water resistant for 80 minutes yet can be easily removed with mild soap and water.

Widely available for under $20, Badger sunscreens provide safe and effective UVA/UVB protection.

Alba Botanica

Alba Botanica entered the sun care market about four decades ago as a pioneer of botanical skin care solutions. Their Sensitive Mineral Fragrance Free Sunscreen offers reef-safe broad spectrum SPF 30 protection at an affordable price point.

It utilizes non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide suspended in a nourishing base of sunflower seed oil, green tea leaf extract, and magnesium sulfate. This lightweight lotion formula spreads easily without leaving behind a white residue.

It is also water resistant for 80 minutes, making it ideal for ocean activities. For under $10 per bottle, it’s a great frugal yet eco-friendly sunscreen choice.

Raw Elements

Raw Elements makes sunscreen designed specifically for surfers, divers, paddlers and ocean lovers. Using non-nano zinc as its active ingredient, Raw Elements formulas are guaranteed to be reef safe and ocean friendly.

Their award-winning Eco Formula 30+ gets top marks from the EWG for health and safety. Enriched with organic hemp seed oil, green tea extract, black tea leaf extract, coffee bean extract and other botanicals, it nourishes skin while providing water resistant SPF 30 protection.

Though priced slightly higher than competitors at around $18, Raw Elements offers peace of mind for conscious beachgoers who want to protect both their skin and fragile underwater ecosystems.

Sun Bum

Sun Bum dominantes the sunscreen market, likely because of its cute name and branding. But how does it rate for eco-friendliness? Quite well, it turns out. Sun Bum makes over a dozen mineral-based sunscreens that are guaranteed reef safe.

Their Baby Bum mineral sunscreen lotion earns rave reviews for its gentle formula that blends zinc oxide with aloe vera, jojoba oil, and other vegan friendly ingredients. Priced around $15 per bottle, Sun Bum products provide good UVA/UVB protection without harmful chemicals.

The company also sponsors beach and ocean cleanups to give back to the environment.

All Good

Living up to its name, All Good’s reef-safe sunscreens keep things simple. Their mineral lotions and sticks rely on non-nano zinc oxide to protect skin, nothing more. A short ingredients list with organic oils and butters makes these products among the purest on the market.

All Good sunscreens are also vegan, gluten free, and Leaping Bunny certified cruelty free. While their price point is a little higher than competitors, hovering around $20, patrons appreciate supporting a brand committed to ecological principles.

Overall, All Good is a great option for low fuss eco-sun protection.

Using Reef Safe Sunscreen Properly in Hawaii

Applying Liberally and Frequently

When using reef safe sunscreen in Hawaii, it is vital to apply it generously and often. The environmentally friendly formulas tend to be less water resistant than chemical sunscreens, so they need to be reapplied more frequently after swimming or sweating.

To ensure adequate protection, apply reef safe sunscreen liberally until a visible layer sits on top of the skin – about 1 ounce per application for most adults. Don’t forget easily missed spots like the tops of ears and feet!

Covering All Exposed Skin

While on the islands, the sun’s rays can reflect off water, sand and even concrete to hit skin from all angles. To protect the whole body, apply reef safe sunscreen to commonly exposed areas like the face, neck, shoulders and legs.

Also coat less obvious spaces prone to burning, including the scalp if you have thin or no hair. Babies and children have delicate skin that requires gentle mineral formulas and extra precaution.

Reapplying After Swimming

The natural ingredients in reef safe sunscreens make them less resistant to water compared to chemical options. Studies show the protective effects begin wearing off as soon as 20 minutes after entering the ocean.

To maintain safety, reapply a liberal amount of eco-friendly sunscreen right after toweling off from a dip or water activities. Pay special attention to places that direct contact with water and waves, like the shoulders and backs of legs.

Disposing Responsibly After Use

While reef safe sunscreens are designed to be environmentally friendly, they can still harm marine life if introduced directly. When finished with a tube or bottle, do not toss it into the ocean or leave it openly on the beach.

The best practice is to keep all personal care waste contained until it can be thrown in a proper trash or recycling bin. Many hotels and public beaches in Hawaii now have clearly marked disposal stations to simplify the process.


Hawaii’s vibrant coral reefs support an abundance of marine life and are critical for the state’s tourism economy. Using reef safe mineral sunscreens rather than those containing chemicals like oxybenzone is an easy way to prevent further damage when enjoying Hawaii’s beautiful beaches and oceans.

Look for reef safe formulas with active ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and follow proper application guidelines. With Hawaiians, visitors and sunscreen companies all working together, these amazing living reefs will thrive for generations to come.

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