A lot of you may not know this, but non-reef safe sunscreen is actually illegal in the USVI. In July of 2019, legislation was passed in the territory outlawing the sale and usage of sunscreen that is harmful to the marine life, and potentially harmful to you! The ban went into effect in March of 2020 and, well, there was kind of a lot of other things going on at the time that prevented it from getting proper coverage (pun intended) or enforcement. Ahem, COVID.
Unfortunately, the term “reef friendly” is not regulated, so it is easy to get confused about what is “safe” and what isn’t. I know that I have been swindled in the store while purchasing sunscreen I thought to be reef safe, only to get home and take a closer look at the ingredients to find that my spendy sunblock purchase had been in vain! I did a little digging to come up with a list of the no no ingredients and “safe” brands to look for so that you can make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to you!
First off, always check the ingredients before tossing that “reef friendly” sunscreen into your shopping cart…Virtually or otherwise. The big ones to look out for are the Toxic Three O’s:
If the sunscreen you are pondering has any of these on the active ingredients list on the back of the tube, place it back on the shelf and keep browsing. A few other notable no no ingredients that may be a bit less common but should still be avoided are:
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
In addition to avoiding the above chemicals, steer clear of spray sunscreen! I understand that it is much easier to apply on the go, especially if you are already at the beach. But, no matter how good your aim might be, some of that spray is likely going to wind up in the sand and, eventually, into the sea. And don’t EVER let a captain see you with spray sunscreen on their boat! We had some guests on board Asante a while back who had “reef friendly” spray which they had applied earlier in the day. And it came off of their skin while on board and turned the boat ORANGE. Spray sunscreen can be sneakily tinted apparently…and if it is turning the boat orange, I surely don’t want it on my skin 🙂
Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are the active ingredients you want to see printed on that label when you flip the bottle over. Here’s the difference: The above no no ingredients are chemicals that absorb the sun’s rays and turn it into heat that is then released from the skin. Zinc and Titanium Dioxide actually form a physical block that prevents your skin from absorbing the sun.
I know, I know….the next words out of your mouth are “But they don’t rub in!” I’ll agree that it’s super annoying when you feel like you need to look like Casper the Ghost in order to safely protect your skin from the sun. But, there’s been a TON of research done over the years and I have actually happened upon a few choice brands that both saturate your skin AND keep the reefs safe from toxic chemicals.
It absorbs better than most and doesn’t feel greasy, it’s waterproof AND it’s easy on your wallet. You can get a six ounce tube of SPF 50 for $22 on Amazon ($3.66 per ounce). If you’re traveling light, they also sell three ounce sized bottles that are perfect for your carry on. The primary ingredient in Think Sport sunscreen is non-nano zinc which, in the US, is considered the most reef friendly active ingredient on the market. As with any sunscreen with zinc, you’re going to notice a white cast after application. But, hey, at least you can see where and when you need to reapply!
Think Sport is also available in “kids” and “baby” formulas, but don’t be fooled by the label. The only difference between the three is the fragrance. So, the original and the variants are all safe for both mama and baby.
This one is going to be a bit rougher on your pocket book, ringing in at $39 for a 6.7 ounce tube ($5.82 per ounce). But, there are a lot of natural additives in Counter Sun that makes your skin super happy! The active ingredient is, once again, zinc oxide but add to that mix a little California Poppy, natural citrus and peppermint oils and you’ll get a lovely smell with happy skin and great sun protection.
Counter Sun is water resistant for up to forty minutes, which does make for more applications, but if you have been on the hunt for a great feeling facial sunscreen, this is it. And, this one WILL NOT leave that pasty white shadow on your skin!
This one is the pick for water sports enthusiasts. The active ingredient is uncoated zinc oxide with a list of inactive ingredients that you can recognize…and pronounce! Jojoba oil, sunflower oil, beeswax and vitamin E come together to nourish your skin while you responsibly protect it. An added bonus is that it is 98% organic AND the zinc oxide formula is clear! So you’re guaranteed a smooth and Casper free application. It is also water resistant for up to 80 minutes and middle of the road as far as cost goes. So, less applications plus average cost equals the most bang for your buck. A three ounce tube of 35 SPF is about $13 at Thrive Market ($4.41 per ounce).
A few brands to watch out for unfortunately…
Sun Bum was my absolute favorite reef safe sunscreen…Until I educated myself a bit and realized that it actually isn’t! It is advertised as reef safe, paraben free and vegan, but it contains octocrylene in its list of active ingredients. It’s smooth application and delicious Hawaiian Tropics smell made me LOVE it, but, alas, another bottle lands in the bag of “pool only” sunscreens. I’ve been duped by other sunscreens with the reef safe label to be sure, but I mention this one specifically because it really broke my heart. Le Sigh.
I have had a ton of folks writing in and requesting reef safe sunscreen information and options. I hope that you all found this helpful! One final friendly word of advice is to order online or buy your sunscreen at home before traveling to the USVI. Test it out in the sunshine to test for coverage. I cannot tell you how many people get fried in the scorching Caribbean sun after using and trusting a sunscreen they had never tried out before. So, test a few products out at home to figure out what works best for you so a serious sunburn doesn’t ruin your St. John holiday 🙂