Which Sunscreens Are Best for the Environment?

Here's how to choose a product that's green and safe

By Jessian Choy

May 12, 2020


Photo by ninitta/iStock

Hey Ms. Green,

What are some of the best environmentally friendly sunscreens? 

—Carl in Quakertown, Pennsylvania 

Sunscreen ends up in the ocean and other waterways after you swim or shower it off. Common ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, nano titanium dioxide, and nano zinc oxide can harm coral reefs and sea creatures. That's why in 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. And the Surfrider Foundation is campaigning for a federal bill that would ban those sunscreens from national marine sanctuaries.

The "reef safe" labeling that's common these days may not mean that the sunscreen is 100 percent reef-friendly—that kind of labeling is currently not regulated—but some sunscreens are less harmful than others. For example, products containing non-nano zinc oxide are generally considered safe for the environment. 

Although there is no definitive evidence linking oxybenzone, octinoxate, nano titanium dioxide, and nano zinc oxide to serious health impacts in humans, more research is needed. Oxybenzone and octinoxate can be absorbed by the body and have shown up in everything from urine to breast milk. Nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide (commonly used in sunscreens to avoid a visible film) boost SPF protection because they directly absorb sunlight, but some scientists have called for more clinical studies to determine whether those tiny particles enter the bloodstream.

Of course, sunscreens are important shields against skin cancer in our increasingly warming world. I get mine from Raw Elements. Its products are third-party certified to have no nanoparticles, and its zinc oxide is uncoated (a purer form of the mineral) and also sustainably mined and recycled. Raw Elements has a high Environmental Working Group score, uses USDA-certified organic ingredients and no palm oil or toxic chemical fragrances, and doesn't use animal testing or plastic packaging. 

On the cosmetic side, Raw Elements' nontinted sunscreens don't make me look like I slathered mayonnaise on my face.