A Guide to Natural & Reef Safe Sunscreen

people paddle boarding on the sea in the sunlight.

SPF stands for ‘sun protection factor’ from ultraviolet rays and is a necessary skincare element which should be part of everyone’s daily routine if you want to protect yourself from premature ageing, and most importantly, skin cancer. 

Chemical versus mineral sunscreen

There are two types of SPF: chemical and mineral.
  • Chemical SPFs work by absorbing the sun’s rays before they can breach the skin. They generally can reach a higher spf but can be an irritant especially if you have sensitive skin and suspected causing coral bleaching. They are however easier to apply and less product is required.
  • Physical (mineral) SPFs work by creating a barrier using natural ingredients such as zinc or titanium oxide. They tend to be gentler on sensitive skin compared to chemical sunscreen since they don’t contain chemical allergens and because they deflect heat away rather than absorbing it. 

Mineral sunscreen (Non-Nano)

    The zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles traditionally used in mineral sunscreens often don’t rub that easily into the skin and can produce a visible whitening effect. Some producers of mineral sunscreen have found the problem can be resolved by breaking these minerals down into tiny nanostructures, which rub into the skin much more easily.

    Concerns around nanotechnology are centered mainly around the potential harmful effects to the human body. There are fears that the small size of nanoparticles allows them to cross cell membranes causing stress and damage to the body’s cells.

    Eco-friendly and reef-safe sunscreen

    In July of 2018, Hawaii became the first U.S. state to ban the sale of suncreams containing two common chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, which many researchers worldwide have deemed potentially harmful to aquatic life and coral reefs. But they aren’t the only ingredients that may be damaging to marine life and since there is no legal definition for 'Reef Safe' sun cream, be sure to check ingredients for any green washing. Other ingredients you want to avoid are:
    • microplastic sphere or beads
    • Nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (our zinc oxide is not in nanoparticle form)
    • Oxybenzone
    • Octinoxate
    • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
    • Octocrylene
    • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
    • Methylparaben
    • Ethylparaben
    • Propylparaben
    • Butylparaben
    • Benzylparaben
    • Triclosan

    Bleached corals do not immediately die, and can recover, however they become far more vulnerable and susceptible to disease and frequently perish, while healthy corals can survive for thousands of years. The hormone-disrupting properties of oxybenzone have also been shown to cause the feminisation of male fish due to it acting like oestrogen and inducing the growth of eggs. 

    Since there is no independent certification available, in most cases brands are using labels such as 'reef-safe' of 'reef-friendly'to signify a product does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate (and is therefore compliant with the Hawaiian ban) but they usually don't consider the longer list above.

    Paula in the Western Pacific have banned eleven including the very common UV filter ontocrylene.

    These harmful chemicals can be avoided when using mineral sunscreen but do double-check the label.

    But, dispiritingly, (some) research has also shown zinc oxide may also cause coral bleaching due to it disrupting the photosynthesis of the algae living in coral tissues. Titanium dioxide has not been found to cause coral bleaching but is linked with potential danger to other forms of marine life. Murky waters indeed! Still, on the basis of current research, oxybenzone appears to be most conclusively linked to coral damage, and the most obvious one to avoid if you are going to be swimming anywhere near a reef.

    It is important to note that by far the greatest driver of coral reef depletion is the rising water temperatures caused by climate change. So, while it is definitely sensible to choose the sunscreen least likely to cause harm, we may be doing the coral a far greater favour if we reduce or don’t take a flight to that tropical destination in the first place.

    bleached coral

    Micro-plastics in sunscreen

    Poorly biodegradable liquid polymers such as acrylates copolymer or carbomer are also prevalent and found everywhere, from sun protection to nail polishes and all kinds of hair styling products, and yet, they go unnoticed by the public and largely ignored by the media or regulatory bodies. In contrast to solid microplastic or microbead particles, they come in different forms: liquid, wax, or gel.

    Opting for a natural and organic sunscreen will ensure they are liquid micro plastic free.

    Palm oil free sunscreen

    Palm oil derivatives are frequently found in sun creams, as well as in the other and personal care products made by the same companies. Choose palm-oil free of RSPO certified palm oil.

    Vegan suncream

    As with other personal care products, sunscreens often contain animal derived ingredients such as keratin and lanolin, as well as honey and beeswax. Beeswax is particularly common in natural sunscreens.

    SPF certifications

    While the relative health risks of nanoparticles and organic chemicals are debatable, the dangers of sunlight exposure are not. The Sun Protection Factor (SPF) rating was introduced in 1974 however the rating relates only to UVB rays – the type that causes visible sunburn and the only type that was known to be harmful at the time.

    It has since been established that UVA rays, which make up 95% of the sun’s UV radiation, can also cause harm. UVA exposure is associated with long-term skin cancers such as melanoma, and can also lead to long-term aging of the skin. Unlike UVB, UVA rays penetrate glass windows and cloud cover, and their intensity remains more or less constant all year round.

    Many products sold in the UK use a five-star rating which represents UVA protection as a percentage of UVB protection, with five stars indicating that this is 90% or above (four or five stars is considered a good level of protection).

    Elsewhere, you’ll find products labelled simply with ‘UVA’ inside a circle – this indicates that the ratio of UVA protection is at least one third of that UVB and therefore in line with EU recommendations.

    Is it organic?

    A straightforward way to ensure the product has reduced environmental impact whilst avoiding some of the harmful chemicals used in sunscreens.

    Is it cruelty-free?

    The Leaping Bunny logo guarantees that the company behind the sunscreen brand is not testing on animals anywhere in the world.

    Does it have a SPF rating of less than 15?

    The NHS advises that sunscreen should have an SPF of at least 15 and therefore gives adequate blocking to UVB rays. Avoid brands with an SPF lower than 15.

    Does it have a UVA rating?

    Within the EU, the amount of UVA protection is indicated in one of two ways, either by a 5-star system or by the letters UVA inside a circle. Avoid brands without a rating.

    spf penetration

    Skincare benefits of SPF

    SPF is a product that can legally be marketed as anti-ageing as it does just that, preventing wrinkles, sun spots and discolouration in the first place.
    SPF should be applied after moisturiser but before make up however if you feel as though you have too many steps to your skincare routine already and a pure SPF is too heavy on your face, you could easily incorporate an SPF moisturiser to save yourself any extra hassle in the morning. A moisturiser combined with SPF is diluted so it is always recommend to use pure SPF when you can but if it's combined with a moisturiser, that is better than none at all.

    SPF Packaging

    We have sourced vegan, natural and organic sunscreens that come in non-plastic containers, such as aluminium or glass which can be infinitely recycled or better yet, are more often reused once the product has been used up. This only leaves three brands in the world that I can purchase from that meet every buying factor mentioned above.

    Our recommended SPF buys


    Amazinc Sun Protection


    Amazinc! is the perfect sun protection for beach goers, forest wanderers and also winter shredders. It prrovides a solid skin protection against UVA, as well as UVB rays. Amazinc! have successfully implemented new technology in a field of mineral UV protection "Viewless ZinCare".

    Did you know, sun cream can be legally marketed as anti-ageing cream! Zinc oxide (non-nano and uncoated) and magnesium oxide, protect your skin from the sun rays with a natural mineral shield offering earth friendly protection.

    antipodes spf 15 face and body moisturiser

    Immortal SPF15 Face & Body Moisturiser, 60ml, £28.99

    The Immortal SPF 15 Skin Brightening Face & Body Moisturiser by Antipodes is natural sun protection factor (SPF) 15 moisturiser which allows you sun exposure of up to 15 times your normal burn time, utilising the natural sun care of raspberry seed oil. Meanwhile, super-antioxidant Vinanza Grape & Kiwi helps decrease the appearance of redness. Moisture levels are boosted and your skin kept firm and flawless thanks to powerful, plant-based hyaluronic acid. Ancient Reishi mushroom of immortality enhances cell turnover for an ageless, healthy skin.

    This SPF moisturiser is an ideal everyday option to use throughout the year, before applying make up if necessary. Being only SPF15, a higher SPF is recommended if you are sun-bathing or outside in the summer for long periods of time.

    What else can you do?

    Have you thought about a UVP t-shirt or even just a plain old t shirt whilst in the sea? An old one your already own is the best. If you know of any UV t shirts that are organic or made from other sustainable materials, let me know and I'll share them here. You would still need to apply suncream to exposed parts of your body but could cut down on 50% of suncream.
    Moral of the blog: wear your SPF every day!
    This blog post has been taken from an original blog post created by our guest blogger Charlotte Ross @sharlotsarah posted in 2019.
    Our cover photo is taken from Cal Major's blog post for Stand Up for Our Seas.

    The Kind Store team try and test all products that we stock, so you can be certain that what you are buying is high quality, works well and loved by us. We source all products using our ethos via our sustainable principles, so you can trust that what you are buying is kind to animals, people and planet. We stock items from UK independent makers and suppliers to ensure our products are eco-friendly. Discover hundreds of vegan, natural, sustainable and cruelty-free products.

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