Here’s what you need to know about eco-friendly sun protection for your family.
One conundrum I’ve recently faced is how to protect my family from sun exposure while also being mindful of the environmental impact of sunscreen. As someone who experienced a lot of sunburns as a child, I want to do everything I can to protect my kids.
On the flip side — and at the risk of sounding super hippy-dippy — I can’t help but wonder if, in my quest to protect them, am I causing harm to the planet?
Given what we know about how vital coral reefs are to the environment, we need to do what we can to limit further damage.
And one way we can do that is by using sunscreen that is safe both for our families and the environment.
So I started digging, and I ended up going down a rabbit hole of research about eco-friendly and reef-friendly sunscreen. (And just barely dug myself out from this sand-covered hole!) I spent hours working on this post in an attempt to find information from reputable sources to decide what will do minimal damage to the environment while also protecting our kiddos.
From the ingredients and their impact on climate change to packaging since many of them are in plastic containers that will likely end up in landfills, I tried to be thorough in my research. (Ultimately I gave up on the environmental impact of the ingredients I realized it was beyond the scope of this blog).
Please note that many of the links below are affiliate links, which means if you make a purchase I may earn a small commission. I recommend you either buy them directly from the company or at a local shop, but have included Amazon links as well because I know people do shop there. In some cases, it is actually more economical to purchase it right from the manufacturer.
Your first (and eco-friendly) line of defense against the sun
A quick disclaimer: I am not a health professional. This blog post is for informational purposes only and is based on my own research. If you have questions or concerns about sun safety, please reach out to your doctor or health professional.
The main conclusion I came to is we should all stay out of the sun (and the oceans) as much as possible.
But knowing that isn’t going to happen (after all, I personally love the beach), there are steps you can take to be more environmentally friendly with your sun protection. That starts with wearing skin-protecting clothing.
The right clothes, such as a rash guard, can offer great sun protection.
It means less skin to slather with sunscreen, which creates less waste and saves you money. (It also saves you from the hassle of putting gobs of sunscreen on your wriggly toddler, which is probably the best benefit of all.)
Of course, many clothes that offer sun protection are made from synthetic materials that are also harmful to the environment. (Seriously, it feels like you can’t win!) To mitigate that, I recommend buying what you can used or purchasing from a company, such as Patagonia, that cares about sustainability.
Also, remember to wear a hat and sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection. Invest in a pair of sunglasses meant to last instead of cheap ones that you keep breaking or misplacing. I believe that you are more likely to take care of ones that you have invested mone in. (Case in point — I still have the expensive ones I purchased about a decade ago even though I would go through at least five pairs a year before that).
After that, it’s time to figure out what sunscreen to wear.
How to choose an eco-friendly sunscreen
When choosing a reef-safe sunscreen, here’s a few things to keep in mind:
- Choose a non-nano or non-nanotized mineral sunscreen made from zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
- “Waterproof” is a meaningless label. According to the FDA (the U.S Food & Drug Administration), no sunscreen is waterproof. However, if you want a sunscreen that will last in the water, choose one that is labeled as water resistant. The FDA has tested them as being effective up to 40 or 80 minutes when swimming or sweating.
- A “Reef safe” label is not strictly enforced by the U.S. government, and therefore is another somewhat meaningless label.
- The American Academy of Dermatology recommends sunscreen with SPF 30 or higher and labeled “broad spectrum”.
- There isn’t a huge difference between SPF 30 and higher. For example, SPF 30 blocks 97% of UVA rays and SPD 50 blocks 98%. (source)
- Avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate. They’re bad both for your body and coral reefs and have even been banned in some states. (If you’re curious about other ingredients to avoid, here is a more complete list.)
- While convenient for application, avoid spray sunscreens. It’s difficult to tell how much you have put on your body and it’s potentially bad to inhale it. (Not to mention you’re likely losing a bunch as you can’t control where it goes.)
Raw Elements (one of the brands I reviewed below) offers a handy guide for choosing and applying sunscreen, and the American Academy of Dermatology gives a full guide into properly applying sunscreen.
Finally, one more note before I move into the specific recommendations. Mineral sunscreen can leave a residue on your skin that makes it look dry or flaky and generally takes more than just soap to get it off. Use an exfoliating scrub (ones that use natural ingredients such as sugar or coffee as the exfoliant) or wash with a sponge (or a real loofah) to get mineral sunscreen off at the end of the day.
And now, onto the recommendations!
6 Reef-Safe Sunscreens for Your Family
I’ve personally tested out the following six sunscreens. I share my opinions about each sunscreen below as well as additional information I was able to find on their websites.
I cannot speak to strength or how long they last.
Some brands either don’t offer a kid-specific sunscreen or I just happen to use a non-kid-specific one on our family. From my understanding, you don’t actually need one marketed as being for kids if you’re using mineral sunscreen, but check with your child’s doctor first.
I’ve also included price, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) rating*, and some notes on the ways that companies’ are working toward sustainability.
*EWG’s Skin Deep Database rates thousands of cosmetic and personal care products for safety by looking at the ingredients. It tanks products from 0-10, with 0 being the safest (low hazard) and ten being the worst (high hazard). Anything in the 0-2 range is considered low hazard.
This is not an exhaustive list of sunscreens, but I purposely chose brands that are mindful about sustainability.
Badger Clear Zinc Oxide Sport Sunscreen SPF 35
*This is my top pick*
Active Ingredients: Uncoated Clear Zinc Oxide 22.5%
Additional Ingredients: *Helianthus Annus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, *Cera Alba (Beeswax), *Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Seed Oil, Tocopherol (Sunflower Vitamin E). (* = Certified Organic)
EWG Rating : 1, Good UVA/UVB Balance
Water resistance: 80 minutes
Notes: I find their sunscreen rubs in well, though it does leave a bit of a greasy feeling.
Brand Certifications: B Corporation, Cruelty-Free, Non-GMO
Badger is by far one of my favorite companies to support. They make family-safe salves for the entire family (the Nursing Balm was a life-saver when my second child was born and I got super dry and cracked nipples that hurt like a mofo). They’re a company that cares very much about sustainability, from the building itself to their ingredients, to their packaging. In fact, their sunscreen tubes contain 52.6% post-consumer recycled plastic by weight.
They’re also a family-friendly workplace and allow employees to bring their young infants to work. You can check out their annual report for more information on how they address these ares and more.
We’ve been using their sunscreen for years, so I was super excited that one of their sunscreens (SPF 30 Unscented Natural Mineral Sunscreen — not the one I reviewed) was highly rated both by and Consumer Reports and the Environmental Working Group (EWG).
Raw Elements Face + Body Lotion, SPF 30
This is my second choice – it comes in a recyclable tin, and no wasted sunscreen that gets stuck in a bottle.
Active ingredient: Non Nano Zinc Oxide (23%)
Additional Ingredients: Sunflower Oil*, Green Tea*, Black Tea*, Coffee Bean*, Hemp Seed Oil*, Cocoa Butter*, Mango Butter**, Beeswax*, Rosemary Oil Extract**, Vitamin E** (* USDA Certified Organic, ** Certified Natural)
EWG Rating: No rating for this particular one, but most of their other products are rated 1. By comparison, their Daily Lifestyle Sunscreen Lotion, SPF 30 rates has a good rating for UVA/UVB Balance
Water Resistance: 80 minutes
Notes: This sunscreen comes in a reusable/recyclable tin, which means no wasted sunscreen! It has a bit of a medicinal smell, but it was subtle. It rubs on easily but it does feel a bit greasy. They recently came out with a line of products specifically for children.
Brand Certifications: 1% for the Planet, Cruelty Free, Natural, Non-GMO
An ocean lifeguard founded Raw Elements after realizing that many sunscreens were bad for both our health and that of the planet. Their website offers educational information on the ocean, skin cancer, and sun protection. They also offer a line of products specifically for babies and kids that come in plastic-free and compostable packaging.
All Good Sunscreen Butter
Active ingredient: 25% Zinc Oxide
Additional Ingredients: Organic Coconut Oil, Organic Beeswax, Organic Calendula Flowers infused in Organic Jojoba Oil, Vitamin E.
EWG Rating: 1, Good UVA/UVB Balance
Water Resistance: 80 minutes
Notes: I found that it rubs in easily (and much more so than their kids’ sunscreen that comes in a tube). I like that it comes in a tin rather than a plastic tube, but I was not a fan that the tin has a plastic wrap to seal it. Given its hefty price tag, I would likely not buy it again. I have also used their All Good Kids’s Sunscreen SPF 30 which is more affordable but doesn’t rub in as easily.
Brand Certifications: 1% for the Planet, B Corp, Cruelty Free, Green America, Campaign for Safe Cosmetics
All Good is a very environmentally focused business. As states on their commitment page, “As a nature-based healing company, we at All Good are forever grateful for the earth’s abundant resources. We see it as our duty to care for them in the same way we care for our own bodies. That’s why we are dedicated to using restorative and responsible business practices.”
Their production facility runs on solar power, they advocate for products and initiatives that promote reef safety, they use recycled and recyclable packaging and even sponsor activist athletes.
California Kids #Supersensitive Broad Spectrum SPF 30+ Sunscreen
Active ingredient: Titanium Dioxide 12%,
Additional Ingredients: Water, Isoamyl Laurate, Coco-Caprylate, Calendula Officinalis Extract (Calendula), Viola Tricolor Extract (Pansy), Polyglyceryl -2 Dipolyhydroxystearate, Euphorbia Cerifera (Candelilla) Wax, Glyceryl Starch, Carthamus Tinctorius (Safflower) Oleosomes, Polyglyceryl-3 Diisostearate, Levulinic Acid, Glycerin, Tapioca Starch, Rosmarinus Officinalis (Rosemary) Leaf Extract, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Squalane, Magnesium Stearate, P-Anisic Acid, Mica, Allantoin, Panthenol
EWG Rating: 2, Moderate UVA/UVB Balance
Water Resistance: unclear
Notes: This sunscreen left a little white residue on the body but was not greasy. They also grow their calendula on their own certified organic farm.
Brand Certifications: Woman Owned, EPA Green Power Partnership, Cruelty Free
California Baby is a woman-owned business that is committed to sustainability. They have solar panels that provide up to 80% of energy, they use recyclable materials that contain post-consumer waste materials, and funnel rainwater and condensation from air conditioning to use for watering plants. This sunscreen was also one of the two mineral sunscreens that was highly rated by Consumer Reports.
Surf Durt (SPF 30)
Active ingredient: Non Nano Zinc Oxide
Additional Ingredients: Cacao Butter, Coconut Oil, Jojoba Oil, Avocado Oil, Beeswax, Carrot Seed Oil, Raspberry Seed Oil, Iron Oxide Pigment (All ingredients certified organic)
EWG Rating: No Info
Water Resistance: 80 minutes
Notes: This is a pretty thick cream and as result, I found it a bit difficult to get out it of the tub and rub it in. I got the tinted one, which leaves a bit of a reddish tinge on the skin, but nothing super noticeable. Since it’s made with cacao butter, I found it had a subtle and pleasant chocolatey scent. It did not leave a greasy feeling on the skin. I think the reusable bamboo container, which is lined with aluminum, is pretty cool and I’m sure the girls will have a blast playing with it, but I’m not a fan of the lack of info on their website. I mostly bought this one mostly out of sheer curiosity.
Brand Certifications: None
Two woman surfers and a chemist dad founded Surf Durt. Their sunscreen is manufactured in the U.S. with locally sourced ingredients with 100% solar power. At the time of this writing, they offer two options: this one and a smaller one in a reusable/recyclable aluminum 1.5 oz container that is $12 (so $8.00 per ounce).
Goddess Garden Natural Kids Sunscreen SPF 50
Active ingredient: Zinc Oxide 20.0%
Additional Ingredients: Aloe Barbadensis Leaf Juice*, Arachidyl Alcohol, Arachidyl Glucoside, Behenyl Alcohol, Bisabolol, Butyloctyl Salicylate, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter*, Caprylhydroxamic Acid, Capryloyl Glycerin/Sebacic Acid Copolymer, Caprylyl Glycol, Cellulose Gum, Cetearyl Alcohol, Cetyl Alcohol, Citric Acid, Coco-Glucoside, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil*, Diheptyl Succinate, Ethylhexylglycerin, Glycerin, Lavandula Angustifolia (Lavender) Oil*, Lavandula Hybrida (Lavender) Oil*, Methyl Dihydroabietate, Microcrystalline Cellulose, Phenoxyethanol, Polyhydroxystearic Acid, Sodium Gluconate, Sodium Hyaluronate, Sodium Stearoyl Glutamate, Theobroma Cacao (Cocoa) Seed Butter, Tocopherol (Vitamin E), Water
EWG Rating: 1, Good UVA/UVB Balance
Water Resistance: 80 minutes
Notes: I have only used their older formula, which I have found does not rub in very well. The newer formula has received much more positive reviews so I feel more hopeful about it, but I have not tried it yet (and am trying to use up all the sunscreen I have from last yeart). I included it because I have found it to be a reputable brand and because I have hope for the new formula.
Brand Certifications: B Corp, Cruelty Free
Founder and herbalist Nova Covington started the Goddess Garden with her biochemist husband after she realized her daughter, who was a baby at the time, was allergic to many chemicals in conventional body products.
In an effort to make containers that are recyclable, Their plastic tubes are made from a single type of plastic (instead of mixed plastic) and their continuous spray bottles are made from recyclable aluminum. All of their electricity comes from wind power, and make strides to be as energy efficient in their production as possible.
My personal top picks for reef-safe sunscreens are Badger and Raw Elements.
I find that they are reasonably priced (within this group). Badger is one of my favorite companies, both in terms of their values and their products. I like that Raw Elements comes in a canister instead of a plastic tube, which to me makes it more recyclable and reusable and less wasted sunscreen.
What is your family’s favorite eco-friendly sunscreen?