For customers taking a snorkeling expedition in Maui, PacWhale Eco-Adventures lists packing suggestions on its website. Among the essentials, there are hats, sunglasses, cameras and towels — but no mention of sunscreen. Hawaii bans some types of sunscreen, so the company instead details a policy that’s more about what not to bring: “We support the statewide ban on sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.”
Hawaii was the first state to enact such legislation, but it is not the only popular tourist destination to do so. If you’re planning on a vacation with lots of time in the water, it may be time to reevaluate your buying habits.
Key West, Aruba, Palau, Bonaire and national parks in Thailand are just some of the places to act since research has shown products containing the common sunscreen chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate can wash away from skin and damage coral reefs.
According to the National Park Service, each year about 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter reef areas — the majority concentrated in tourist hot spots.
There are still plenty of sunscreens to keep your skin safe — and the water cleaner — on vacation. Here are five tips from scientists and dermatologists on how to identify them.
Not all “reef safe” options are the real deal
More “reef safe” sunscreens are hitting the market to meet consumer demand, but that description isn’t a seal of approval. "'Reef safe’ sunscreen is largely a marketing term,” says David Andrews, a senior scientist at the nonprofit Environmental Working Group. “It doesn’t have a definition by the FDA, so there is no standard for that.”
As you shop, it’s important to scan the ingredients. (Warning, we’re about to get into a bunch of chemical names that are easy to gloss over.) PacWhale Eco-Adventures recommends making sure the sunscreen is non-nano zinc oxide based and that does not contain the following ingredients of concern: oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate.
If you’re worried that any “reef safe” sunscreen is not effective, rest easy; there are good ones out there. “You’re not deciding between your skin and the coral reefs,” says Kenneth Howe, an associate clinical professor at Mount Sinai Hospital and dermatologist at UnionDerm. “It’s a win-win for everybody.”
Look for mineral (not chemical) sunscreens
There are two types of sunscreen: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens absorb UVA and UVB light, while mineral sunscreens physically block them with active ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
While you can find chemical sunscreens that don’t have those environmentally-concerning ingredients, experts recommend choosing a mineral sunscreen instead.
“There is some conflicting evidence, but the best available information indicates that some of the mineral products like zinc oxide seem to be the least damaging to coral reefs,” Andrews says.
For Craig Downs, executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL) who’s co-authored studies on sunscreen’s impact on coral reefs, says mineral options are also the way to go as their main ingredients (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are the only sunscreen ingredients approved by the Food and Drug Administration.
“And there are some really nice mineral sunscreen products out there that apply as a white cream, but as you rub it in, the white disappears and it’s translucent," Downs says in an email. “What is really fantastic about these ‘disappearing’ creams is that you can see what skin is being covered when you apply it, and what isn’t.”
When Howe’s clients want a sunscreen recommendation for their beach vacation, “I really love the Elta MD sunscreen brand,” he says. “It’s very popular with dermatologists.”
Howe says Elta MD sunscreens offer strong UV protection but also feels nice to apply — not something most people think of when zinc oxide comes to mind.
Hamza D. Bhatti, a dermatologist at Schweiger Dermatology Group who specializes in skin cancer, also vouches for Elta MD — particularly for those with sensitive or acne-prone skin. “It has a little bit of niacinamide in it, which is an antioxidant that helps prevent any type of flare-up,” he says.
For a cheaper alternative, there is Neutrogena’s Sensitive Skin sunscreen, which Howe uses personally. His wife, who is a surfer constantly under harsh daylight, adds an extra layer of protection by using a sunscreen stick (she’s a fan of Shiseido’s Clear Sunscreen Stick). Not only is it easy to apply to a small area, but also it is good for travelers anxious about the liquids rule for carry-on bags on planes.
However, because our bodies aren’t perfectly flat surfaces, Bhatti says sunscreen sticks have drawbacks. “There are some rounded areas where you might not get the same amount of penetration,” he says, warning users to pay close attention to any sun-exposed nooks and crannies.
Ditch sunscreen sprays altogether
An easy rule of thumb for your sunscreen shopping: Avoid spray cans.
Downs says HEL recommends against aerosol or spray cans because they don’t guarantee even or sufficient application, especially outside. “The wind can drive as much as 90 percent from the can to the surrounding environment,” he says. “And that spray can travel at least a quarter of a mile away.”
If it’s not getting on your skin, it’s getting into your surroundings. “This is a source of environmental contamination,” Downs says.
There is also the concern of inhaling sunscreen spray. “That’s both inhalation of the ingredients in the product as well as of small particles of sunscreen,” Andrews says. “That’s of concern, especially when [researchers] found that some products out there [were] releasing particles that could be inhaled deep into the lungs.”
Seek shade and pack more coverups
While sunscreen can help travelers protect their skin from UV rays, it’s not the only way.
“We recommend sunscreen alongside really the use of hats, clothing and seeking shade,” Downs says.
Howe encourages people to find clothes with built-in UV protection. “I’ve worn a sun shirt for the past 20 years, and it doesn’t take me nearly as long to put on sunscreen,” he says. “I put it on the backs of my hands and everywhere that’s exposed from the neck up and my legs.”
To test your own clothes for sun protection, Howe has a simple tip. “If you hold it up to the light, and you can see a lot of light streaming through, it’s not going to work,” he says.