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Best Sunscreens for Your Kids and the Planet

When choosing a sunscreen, you want a product that is as safe as possible for your child as well as for the ocean. Most commercial sunscreens have chemicals that do not serve either of these purposes. When we swim in the ocean, the sunscreen on our skin leaches into the water. Even if we don’t get in the water, when we spray aerosol sunscreens at the beach, the chemicals get blown into the sand and washed into the ocean. Even sunscreen worn in a pool or shower washes off, goes through the water treatment system, and can make its way into the ocean or any local waterway. Because so much sunscreen seeps into the ocean one way or another, we need to choose sunscreens that will minimize the damage to coral and marine life.

Bonus: These ocean-safe sunscreens are also safer for your and your child’s skin.
Here are the main points you need to know to choose a reef-safe sunscreen:

  • Choose sunscreens whose active ingredient is non-nano zinc oxide or non-nano titanium dioxide. The Environmental Working Group(EWG) prefers zinc oxide, but sunscreens with titanium dioxide also tend to rate well so long as the application is topical (no sprays or powders, which pose an inhalation risk). While no sunscreen is 100% “reef safe,” based on the current available information, these ingredients are the safest options. These mineral sunscreens are also the safest options for human skin because they do not get absorbed into the skin and enter the bloodstream like chemical sunscreens do.

  • Above all, avoid oxybenzone. This is the most common ingredient in sunscreens. It can cause allergic skin reactions and hormone disruption in kids and adults, and it is toxic to coral (causing bleaching and DNA damage) and other marine life. Other ingredients to avoid are: octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, butylparaben, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, and retinyl palmitate.

  • Avoid mineral sunscreens that use nanoparticles. Nanoparticles may harm marine life such as crustaceans, algae, fish, mussels, urchins and more. While it’s difficult to guarantee 100% non-nano zinc oxide, environmentally conscious companies do their best to create a larger particle for their sunscreens that will not pose as great a threat to the environment. On the label, “zinc oxide” is close to what you are looking for, but not quite. You want it to say “non-nano zinc oxide” or “no nanoparticles.”

  • Choose water-resistant or “sport” sunscreens. Less will wash off of your body into the ocean.

  • Don’t rely on a reef safe label. It is not regulated and sadly cannot be trusted. Look at the ingredient list yourself to be certain there is no oxybenzone or octinoxate, and to ensure the active ingredient is non-nano zinc oxide or non-nano titanium dioxide.

  • Choose lotions rather than sprays. While sprays can seem incredibly convenient with kids, your kids won’t get thick and even coverage with them and a lot of the product is wasted. Chemical and mineral sunscreen sprays also pose an inhalation risk. If you feel you NEED a spray, choose one whose active ingredient is zinc oxide.

  • Protect your and your child’s skin from the sun with hats, shirts, rash guards, or shade. This minimizes the amount of sunscreen you need.

Here are our five picks for kid-friendly and ocean-safe sunscreens:

Remember that no sunscreen is 100% reef safe—not enough testing has occurred to make this guarantee. However, with the information we currently have, non-nano zinc oxide is the safest choice. You can help reduce the amount of chemicals and minerals that enter the ocean by using clothing, hats, and shade for protection where possible.


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