There are a few places in the world that require people to use reef safe sunscreen. This includes Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
Recently, I learned of another place that asks visitors to pack sunscreen that won’t harm coral reefs. And that place is Turks and Caicos.
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While it’s not an official rule or law, it’s a request.In case you didn’t know, Turks and Caicos is a group of coral islands situated east of the Bahamas.
I’m headed to Turks and Caicos for my first real vacation this month. It will be my first time away since 2020. And I want to make sure I do the right thing by buying reef safe sunscreen to use while I’m there.
Beaches, Sandals, and Turks and Caicos
In 2007, my family and I took a Barenaked Ladies fan cruise from Florida to Turks and Caicos. Yes, that cruise included seeing concerts with Barenaked Ladies, the Canadian band, as well as Guster, the band from Boston.
We got a chance to take a picture with the band as we boarded the ship. That’s us below, a bit starstruck.
In addition, decades ago, I wrote a profile of Sandals founder Butch Stewart for Entrepreneur magazine. For that assignment we toured various Sandals Resort locations with Stewart as our guide. This included visits to Sandals Montego Bay in Jamaica and Sandals St. Lucia, which had just opened.
I’m trying to find a picture of my husband and me in front of the Sandals jet we took on that trip. Once I do I’ll add it here.
OK, the only photo I could find was of me. I’m taking a picture of the Sandals private jet.
How to find the best brands of reef safe sunscreen
I’d never heard of reef safe sunscreen until I booked this Beaches trip. One of the women on this girls’ vacation is a scuba diver and she implored us only to use mineral sunscreen, not chemical sunblock.
You see it’s the sunscreen that uses chemicals to block out the sun that can cause damage to coral reefs. This article in the journal Science explains what one of those chemicals, called oxybenzone, does to coral.
Actually, the more I thought about it, the more I realized that if chemical sunscreens can do that to aquatic life, what are they doing to my own body as my skin absorbs it?
Turns out that I’ve been avoiding chemical sunscreens for years. Why? Because I have sensitive skin. And those chemicals always caused an adverse reaction, like burning and stinging.
In fact, for years I’ve leaned towards using children’s sunscreen. These tend to be gentler on the skin and are less likely to have harmful chemicals in them because, you know, kids.
Destinations that have sun protection product rules
In some locations it’s actually against the law to sell sun protection products that can harm marine life. That’s not to say that visitors will get a fine for bringing it with them.
However, stores can’t sell these products. So if you forget your sunblock, you’ll only be able to buy these mineral sunscreens there.
One such location is Hawaii. In 2018 the state banned the sale of sunscreen with oxybenzone and octinoxate, two common UV-blocking chemicals, according to this REI article.
The next year the city of Key West in Florida followed suit with a similar ban.
According to the organization Save the Reef, other countries that ban certain sunscreens include Aruba and Bonaire in the Caribbean, and Palau in the South Pacific.
Therefore, if swimming, snorkeling or other water sports are on your list of things to do in Aruba (or these other locations), make sure you pack reef-safe sunscreen.
Other locations on this list, according to Conde Nast Traveler, include the US Virgin Islands and certain places in Mexico.
Chemicals to avoid in your sunscreen
Below is a list of specific chemicals you do not want in your sunscreen. These are the ones that can hurt marine life.
The list starts with three chemicals beginning with the letter O. They are:
Also, parabens are no good either. Many people are sensitive to parabens, and lots of commercial skin care products have stopped using them anyway. However, you still need to check your sunblock ingredients to ensure they’re not in there.
Other chemicals to avoid in your sunscreen
- Benzyl Paraben
- Butyl Paraben
- Ethyl Paraben
- Methyl Paraben
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
- Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
- Propyl Paraben
Ingredients and nanoparticles
In addition to being aware of the ingredients in your sun block, you want to ensure that there are no nanoparticles. What are nanoparticles?
Well, in mineral-based sunscreen, it means that it will rub in and not leave a white film. Sounds great, right?
Wrong. Nanoparticles are small enough so that your skin easily absorbs them. That’s why they rub in so well.
However, it also means that marine and aquatic life can absorb them, too. So that is why you want to look for “non nano” on the label as best as you can.
What sunscreens to pack for Turks and Caicos
Right now, the best way to ensure you’ve packed reef safe is to choose a mineral-based one. Primarily, you want ingredients like zinc oxide, which creates a barrier on your skin to protect it from the sun.
However, according to an official list of Hawaii-approved sunscreens, you don’t want a product with a high concentration of titanium dioxide. Why? Because it doesn’t biodegrade.
I believe that I already own the right sunscreen to bring with me. Even so, I wanted to do some research on different brands.
Sun products in my medicine cabinet
For example, a few years ago we used up our FSA (flexible spending account) dollars for the year by stocking up on sunblock. I treated myself to the fancy-sounding brand Vichy Laboratories, which promoted great sun protection and good for sensitive skin.
Unfortunately, when I looked at the label with fresh eyes, I was shocked. This expensive product–about $30 for a five-ounce tube–contains all of the ingredients you’re not supposed to have in your sunscreen. I’m not packing it.
Next, I looked at my daily moisturizer that I use–CeraVe AM Facial Moisturizing Lotion. It has broad spectrum sunscreen in it.
And when I looked at the label? Sure, there’s zinc oxide in there but also two of the three “O” chemicals I wanted to avoid.
Even the Target version of the CeraVe lotion, from the Up and Up brand, has those chemicals, too. Guess I’ll be leaving that at home, too.
To be fair CeraVe does offer a line of mineral sunscreens that are just titanium dioxide and/or zinc oxide. They’re just not advertised as a daily moisturizer.
Reef safe brands to try out
Obviously, I need to find new brands that make sunscreen and sunblock that are considered to be safe to use in waters with reefs.
So I ordered a bunch from Amazon, Target, Ulta and some other retailers.
Surprising ingredients in Banana Boat
For instance when my daughters were little, we only used a sunscreen stick on our faces. We loved the kind from the brand Banana Boat that went on blue because it was easy to see where you might have missed a spot.
Also, with a stick sunscreen, you don’t have to worry about the lotion dripping into your eyes. Heck, as an adult, I would use it, too.
Unfortunately, the Banana Boat stick sunscreen is not a mineral sunscreen. It is a chemical one. So I did not add it to the cart.
Is Neutrogena sunscreen reef safe
If you Google “Is Neutrogena sunscreen reef safe?” you’ll get results that make it sound like it is. For example, I ended up on a page on Walmart.com that literally said Neutrogena Reef-Safe Sunscreen in Sunscreen. That was the heading on my search results page. There were six products listed.
However, before adding to cart, I checked the ingredients on every single product. Here’s what I found.
Of the six results, five listed zinc oxide as the main ingredient. The sixth has those “O” chemicals I wanted to avoid. So that was a definite no.
The description of the ThinkSport mineral sunblock told me exactly what I was looking for in a reef-safe sunscreen for my trip, including this:
“The formula does not use nano (ultra small) zinc oxide.”
ThinkSport also makes ThinkBaby, which is obviously sunscreen for babies.
As I mentioned earlier, I’ll often buy these baby products because they tend to be easier on my sensitive skin.
So in addition to buying the ThinkSport sunscreen, I bought a two-pack of the ThinkBaby sunscreen. One is a tube of sunscreen and the other is a face stick. These are definitely coming with me to Turks and Caicos.
Blue Lizard reef safe sun protection
By all accounts, it appears that Blue Lizard is a reef safe sunscreen. It’s made in Australia, where reef protection is top of mine. You know, the Great Coral Reef is nearby.
Also, it doesn’t contain any of those chemicals we want to avoid. In fact, its primary active ingredient is a non-nano zinc oxide.
I ended up getting a 1.7 ounce tube of the face mineral sunscreen so I could bring it in my carry-on bag. You can buy Blue Lizard products at Target. That’s where I bought mine.
This article answers the question can you bring makeup on a plane in your carry-on bag.
List of reef safe sunscreen brands I did buy
So, after hours and hours of research, I ended up with eight different kinds of sunscreen that I determined were reef safe. Yeah, I may have gone a bit overboard in my purchasing.
But I’ll be in Turks and Caicos for eight days. So I didn’t want to run out.
Anyway, here are the brands I ended up buying. They are listed alphabetically, with the store where I bought them included:
Where to buy reef safe sunscreen
If you want to purchase sunscreen that won’t harm reefs, you have many options as I discovered. However, you do need to do your homework before adding to cart.
For example, the search results I got on Walmart.com were questionable. Same with Amazon.com. Though I did end up buying three sunscreens on Amazon.
Target was easiest to shop. I got great search results, and Target includes images of the ingredients list on packaging. So I could review them easily online.
If you’re traveling international, I strongly suggest you apply for a Global Entry interview to make your return trip through customs easier.
Final thoughts on reef safe sunscreen
I’ll admit that this whole exercise of tracking down reef safe sunscreen was eye opening. The next time I need to buy sunscreen, I will be a much more discriminating consumer.
As I said earlier, if the ingredients in chemical sunscreen can damage marine and aquatic life, what is it doing to me? For that reason, I’ll probably be a mineral sunscreen person from here on in.
Through the end of December, you can rejoice in the Gift of Blue with up to $750 Air Credit + up to $250 Resort Credit when booking a stay of 7 nights or more plus flights at select Beaches resorts.