Choosing the right sunscreen for your beach vacation is an important part of ensuring you don’t return home with a painful sunburn. But research suggests that in some cases, the sunscreen you’re using to protect your skin could be causing damage to the ocean’s coral reefs.
Octinoxate and oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone, are common ingredients found in chemical sunscreens that protect your skin by absorbing UV rays. Recent studies show both are toxic to coral by causing endocrine disruption and adding to coral bleaching, a phenomenon in which colorful coral turns white by rejecting symbiotic organisms.
While octinoxate and oxybenzone are effective in protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful rays, evidence suggests it can run off the skin and into the oceans as you swim. According to a 2017 Cosmetic Surgery Forum presentation by dermatologist Dr. Matthew Zirwas, a study conducted in the Virgin Islands found that a harmful concentration of oxybenzone was found in the waters in areas with a higher number of daily swimmers, typically in bays and coves closer to the shore.
So, what should you do if you want to help protect ocean coral?
You might think an easy answer would be to avoid wearing any sunscreen at all when you swim in the ocean, but that will leave your skin vulnerable to sunburns, future signs of aging like wrinkles and dark spots, or worse, skin cancer. Not a good idea. Fortunately, you do have some coral-safe sunscreen options.
Sunscreens with mineral-based active ingredients (also known as physical sunscreens), block the sun’s rays, as opposed to their chemical-based counterparts that absorb rays. While active ingredients found in physical sunscreens like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can leave a white “cast” on your skin, they are shown to have less of a harmful effect on ocean coral.
Board-certified dermatologist Dr. Joel Schlessinger advises, “To keep your skin safe on vacation, choose a sunscreen with at least an SPF 30 and re-apply every two hours while you’re in the sun. Consider adding Heliocare, an antioxidant pill made from a fern in Central America as an added layer of protection. Additionally, try to add protective clothing where possible and keep under cover when you can, whether you are on a boat or on a hammock.”
LovelySkin considers the earth and the effects that our decisions have on sustaining our planet and its resources. Here are a few of our physical sunscreen favorites that will protect your skin without the increased risk of harming ocean coral:
EltaMD UV Pure Broad-Spectrum SPF 47 – This water- and sweat-resistant sunscreen is perfect for a day at the beach. It blocks the sun's harmful rays with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and leaves a slight white residue on the skin to clearly indicate which areas are protected. Plus, its oil-free formula won't clog pores, making it a reliable choice for all skin types.
EltaMD UV Physical Broad-Spectrum SPF 41 (Tinted) – If you prefer a specifically formulated sunscreen for your face, this one is perfect for the beach! It contains titanium dioxide and is equipped with some of the highest concentrations of sun-deflecting zinc oxide on the market. It’s universally tinted to help neutralize any white cast, water resistant and is non-comedogenic and free of parabens and fragrances, making it an excellent choice for acne-prone and sensitive skin types.
Colorescience Sunforgettable Total Protection Brush-On Shield SPF 50 – This innovative sunscreen brush makes sun protection a cinch! It features a tinted formula, so it’s perfect for your face but simple and strong enough to use on your whole body. It defends skin with physical blockers zinc oxide and titanium dioxide and is water-resistant, so it won’t come off when you wade into the water.
Replenix Sheer Physical Sunscreen Cream SPF 50+ – Protect your entire body from the sun with this heavy-duty zinc oxide sunscreen. This multi-tasking formula also contains antioxidant powerhouses green tea, resveratrol and vitamin C to further protect skin from environmental pollution, while providing anti-aging benefits.
SkinCeuticals Sheer Physical UV Defense Sunscreen SPF 50 – This physical sunscreen’s fluid formula blocks the sun’s UV rays without the white cast that typically ensues. It’s waterproof for 40 minutes and is heat and stress resistant, making it an ideal choice for playing at the beach.
Dermatologist-Approved Sunscreens for Everyday Use (But Not for the Beach)
But, what about the days you aren’t swimming in the ocean? Any of the mineral-based sunscreens we referenced above are completely appropriate for sun protection on any day. But, if you’re looking for a simpler sunscreen to wear under makeup, a multitasking formula that provides additional skin care benefits or just something lighter for everyday wear, here are a few of our favorites:
EltaMD UV Clear Broad Spectrum SPF 46 (Untinted) – This dynamic sunscreen contains a blend of physical and chemical sunscreen ingredients and features an oil-free formulation that won’t clog pores. Plus, it contains 5% high-purity niacinamide to calm blemishes, inflammation and discoloration, lactic acid for exfoliation benefits and vitamin E to promote healthy looking skin.
Revision Skincare Intellishade Tinted Moisturizer SPF 45 (Tinted) – This 4-in-1 tinted moisturizer does so much more than simply protect your skin from the sun. It contains a blend of physical and chemical sunscreens for sun protection, three peptides to address fine lines, vitamin C to brighten the skin and white birch and plankton extract to help smooth away wrinkles.
La Roche Posay Anthelios 60 Melt-In Sunscreen Milk – This face and body sunscreen is perfect for everyday wear! It features a hydrating “milk” formulation that keeps skin moisturized and powerful antioxidants like vitamin E to further protect your skin from environmental damage.
A sun-safe trip to the beach doesn’t have to compromise precious ocean coral. Which sunscreen is your go-to? Let us know in the comments below!