General Advice, Sustainability, Travel Resources

Reef Safe Sunscreen Reviews

If you’ve read last week’s post on sun safety and the effect of traditional (i.e. chemical) sunscreens on our oceans and your health, then you might be wondering what reef safe sunscreen you should use. Lucky for you, I have spent the last three years trying way too many reef safe sunscreen options to find the one that works best for me and this post is the result of that. I want to preface this by saying that these brands are available either in Australia or the US because, while I live full time in Australia, I am an American citizen and head back there from time to time. Some won’t be available in Australia (I’m not sure how easy it is to ship Supergoop as I picked that up in the US) and some won’t be available in the US (Invisible Zinc Sheer Defence is easily available in most every Australian supermarket, but I’ve never seen it in the US). That being said, I will post all information about each brand in each section so you can decide which is best for you.

reef safe sunscreen test patches on Monica's arm
1) Surf Mud 2) Invisible Zinc Sheer Defence 3) Supergoop CC Screen 4) Supergoop Mineral Matte Screen 5) Neutrogena Sheer Zinc 6) SafeSea Sunscreen Spray

As you can see above, I have trialed these reef safe sunscreens from dark to light (1 to 6) and will discuss them in that order. Also, as you can see in all the photos I have white skin that tans easily, though I do avoid tanning as much as I can for sun safety purposes; if you have lighter or darker skin definitely consider this when finding a reef safe sunscreen that suits you. Unfortunately, some of the brands only offer one color (Surf Mud, Neutrogena and SafeSea) which can be pretty frustrating. Supergoop definitely offers the widest color spectrum I have seen and they have helpful pictures when ordering to try to get the best match possible online. One final note, I originally wanted to take all the pictures on the same day, but my face started getting a bit red with all the sunscreening, removing, and washing so I decided to trial two per day to avoid becoming a tomato (if anyone is wondering how to remove reef safe sunscreen without having to use a make up remover, I love reusable make up removing pads, they really help to get the sticky stuff off). Okay, all those disclaimers out of the way let’s dive into a post with way too many photos of my face.

Here’s what I look like normally for comparison’s sake.

Surf Mud

This thick bad boy will have you covered for days spent in salt water while baking under a harsh Australian sun. It is by far the thickest and heaviest feeling reef safe sunscreen in the list and there’s a reason for that, it was designed for long days surfing, diving, or doing any other ocean related sport that would normally wash off the lighter feeling brands. It only comes in the one color, which, in my opinion, is too dark for my skin tone. When I put on a full face of it I feel like the victim of a fake tan gone wrong, which is just not my cup of tea. However, it will probably work really well for darker skin, but I can’t speak to this from experience as I don’t have dark skin. I also personally find it too heavy for full face wear (I’m not used to wearing much on my face as I don’t really wear make up, so if you normally wear heavy foundation this might not feel so heavy to you). Instead, I have found that Invisible Zinc Sheer Defence all over as my base layer with Surf Mud on top giving extra coverage to my nose and cheeks is my perfect diving combo. It doesn’t feel too heavy, but I can relax knowing it will stay put.

Cost: $22.95 AUD

Made in Australia, available worldwide (Australian shipping is $8, international is $10).

Invisible Zinc Sheer Defence SPF 50

This is Kane’s go to face sunscreen and my go to for more active, outdoor days. It comes in three colors, light, medium, and untinted and I’ve found that light is too light for me and medium is almost right (medium is what I trialed as it’s what we use, I just wish they made a light-medium as I think the medium is a bit too orangey/dark for my tastes). It’s also not going to be a good option for people with darker skin as they don’t have a dark option. It goes on a LOT lighter feeling than Surf Mud, though everything goes on lighter than Surf Mud.

Cost: $25 AUD

Only available in Australia (at most supermarkets and chemists)

Supergoop CC Screen SPF 50

I really wanted to love this sunscreen/make up and I had hoped that it would replace my Tarte tinted moisturizer that I have been using for decades now as my main face “make up”. Unfortunately for me, while it has great coverage, it feels too heavy on my skin for me to love it. That might just be the trade off for great coverage though, so if that’s a trade you’re willing to make it could be a great, high SPF, reef safe sunscreen “make up” option. I also think I got it in too light of a color (I ordered 215N) and if I reordered would go one shade darker. One other thing I love about Supergoop in general is that it has a great range of color options that helps everyone, from the lightest white skin to the deepest black skin, find a good color match. I wish the cheaper reef safe sunscreens had the color options of Supergoop, but that might be just another trade off – it’s more expensive, thus they are able to carry a wider range of colors.

Cost: $42 USD

Only available in the US

Supergoop Mineral Matte Screen SPF 40

This is my favorite reef safe sunscreen of all time and 100% my daily wear sunscreen. It goes on so gloriously light that it hardly feels like there is anything on your skin and, while it doesn’t offer zit covering coverage, does smooth out your complexion to look just a little bit touched up, but not made up. As it blends into your skin tone rather than covering it up, it is one tone suits all, which I have my doubts about in general, but worked really well for me. It is water and sweat resistant for 40 minutes, but I wouldn’t trust it on a big diving day, so if you’re going to be in the sun all day doing sweaty/watery things, maybe don’t use it that day, but definitely use it every other day. I love it and, given it’s not available in Australia, will probably be stocking up every time I head stateside from here on out.

Final note on Supergoop as a company: Not all of their sunscreens are reef safe sunscreens, if you pick something outside of their 100% mineral range it will likely have one of the four baddies in it (oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, and octocrylene) so shop wisely – always read the ingredients list before buying.

Cost: $38 USD

Only available in the US

Neutrogena Sheer Zinc SPF 50

I used to love Neutrogena back in the old days when I didn’t know any better about the problems with chemical sunscreens, so when I first decided to try reef safe sunscreens I took that brand loyalty all the way to the check out counter. It was a mistake. Unfortunately, Neutrogena has not adapted with the times and their Sheer Zinc SPF 50 is less sheer and more ghost. Maybe it would work for someone from Ireland, but it was a resounding fail for me (and even funnier while diving, because as you go deeper underwater red becomes less visible, which makes skin look paler even without zinc sunscreen and when you wear this sunscreen diving you go full on Casper).

Cost: $13 USD

Available worldwide in most supermarkets

SafeSea Sunscreen Spray SPF 50

This one was a wild card for us. Basically, when we got to Tioman Island we realized that we’d forgotten to bring our dive leggings, which are normally our go to for sun and sting protection underwater, so we needed some sunscreen that wasn’t going to kill the reef. We did have our face reef safe sunscreen with us, Invisible Zinc Sheer Defence being the main one used, and one tube of chemical sunscreen that we used for big areas, like legs, while on land, but none of that was going to cut it for diving on a coral reef with no dive leggings. So we bought this, the only one available at the dive shop. It worked pretty well, we did not get burnt (though I did feel a few minor stings, so not so sure about its sting prevention claims) and didn’t look too much like Casper underwater (in fact is goes on almost clear). However, it does contain octocrylene so it’s not completely reef safe and, due to the octocrylene, it has that chemical sunscreen greasy feel. In the end, I would have preferred to use our dive leggings, but if you need to cover a large area of your body with a sunscreen and this is much better than a completely chemical sunscreen.

Cost: $19 USD

Available online and in some dive shops worldwide

Reef Safe Sunscreen Recommendations

I would recommend Surf Mud combined with Invisible Zinc for intense water days, Invisible Zinc by itself for big activity days on land, SafeSea for if you absolutely must have full body sunscreen while swimming in sensitive marine environments (but really dive leggings and rash guards are still better), Supergoop CC Screen for the best color range, and Supergoop Mineral Matte Screen for everyday wear. The only one I don’t recommend for any purpose is Neutrogena Sheer Zinc, that is unless you have very pale skin. Overall, reef safe sunscreen is great for face application and harder for full body application (if it rubs off you are no longer protected and zinc can stain clothes); so definitely consider some sun protective swimwear, such as dive leggings or rash guards, for when you are in sensitive marine environments.

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