What to Look For in an Eco-Friendly Sunscreen, According to a Dermatologist

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"Wondering how to choose an eco-friendly sunscreen? We got a dermatologist's advice. Here are five top-notch options to try."

With summer just around the corner, staying safe in the sun is a must. We all know SPF is non-negotiable: It protects your skin from harmful UV rays and reduces your risk of sunburns, hyperpigmentation, premature signs of aging, and skin cancer. But with all the different eco-friendly sunscreen options on store shelves, what should you be looking for?

For a rundown of the basics and an expert’s recommendation, we spoke to Joshua Zeichner, MD, FAAD, a board-certified dermatologist, professor of dermatology, and the director of cosmetic and clinical research in dermatology at Mount Sinai Hospital in New York City. Here’s everything you should know before buying an eco-friendly sunscreen.

eco-friendly sunscreen

First of All, Make Sure It’s Reef-Safe

Unfortunately, many of the sunscreen formulas that protect you pose risks to coral reefs and aquatic life. According to Ocean Conservatory, some of the chemicals in them “decrease corals’ defenses against bleaching, damaging their DNA and hurting their development.” In chemical sunscreens, it’s the acting UV filter, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, or octocrylene.

These sunscreens absorb UV rays from the sun, effectively protecting your skin. But in seawater, they put corals under significant stress—and, consequently, all the marine life that depends on coral reefs. Bleaching puts coral at much greater risk for mortality and makes it more susceptible to disease. When in this heightened state of stress for long periods of time, bleached coral will eventually die.

Fortunately, it’s very much possible to keep the best interests of both your skin and coral reefs in mind when shopping for SPF. “Reef-safe sunscreens are products that are free of UV filters that are thought to be damaging to the environment. The two main offenders are oxybenzone and octinoxate,” says Dr. Zeichner. “It’s thought that these chemicals impact the health of the reef and related aquatic life in the ocean.”

eco-friendly sunscreen

Chemical vs Mineral Sunscreen: Which Is Best?

A distinction can be made between chemical sunscreens and mineral sunscreens. As mentioned, chemical sunscreens function to absorb UV rays. Mineral sunscreen, on the other hand, deflect UV rays away from the skin. These contain mineral ingredients, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

“Most mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide as their UV blocking ingredient are generally considered to be reef-safe,” says Dr. Zeichner. “The mineral blockers are having a moment right now, as more and more consumers are gravitating away from chemical sunscreens in general.”

This doesn’t mean, of course, that you should toss out every tube of chemical sunscreen you own. (And definitely doesn’t mean you can skip SPF!) “They’re effective, and there’s no substantial data showing that they’re harmful to your health,” Dr. Zeichner says. “That being said, the best sunscreen is the one that you’re actually using.”

Do the Most Effective Sunscreens Have Higher SPFs?

As with any SPF, proper application—and reapplication—is key. When selecting your desired eco-friendly sunscreen, it might seem like the higher the number, the better. But according to Dr. Zeichner, that’s misleading. 

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), when you’re dealing with anything over SPF 50, any difference in effectiveness is negligible. And those higher and higher numbers may just give users false hope, possibly even causing people to apply less often than they should. “No matter which sunscreen you use, look for broad-spectrum protection with at least SPF 30. Reapply every two hours or immediately after heavy sweating or swimming,” he says. “Broad-spectrum” means that a sunscreen protects against both UVA and UVB rays. 

5 Eco-Friendly Sunscreens to Try

The next time you step out into the sun, these eco-friendly sunscreen options will help keep you protected. Just make sure to reapply!

1. Solara Suncare Time Traveler Sunscreen, $42

eco-friendly sunscreen

Dr. Zeichner’s pick for an eco-friendly sunscreen option is this option from Solara Suncare. “It uses all-natural ingredients in a formula that fully rubs into the skin without leaving behind a white cast,” he says. It’s vegan, reef-friendly, cruelty-free, and 100 percent recyclable.

2. Coola Organic Face Sunscreen, $32

eco-friendly sunscreen

This sunscreen is a favorite of Liza Moiseeva, co-founder and CMO of Brightly. “It’s so important to put sunscreen on daily, even if it’s not the summer,” she says. “I love Coola. It smells good, it’s a really thin layer, and it doesn’t leave a white cast.”

3. Alba Botanica Fragrance-Free Sensitive Sunscreen, $9

A clean, cruelty-free, and biodegradable mineral sunscreen you can buy right at Target? Count us in! This option is perfect for sensitive skin, as it doesn’t contain any added fragrance.

4. Supergoop! Unseen Sunscreen SPF 40, $20

eco-friendly sunscreen

This cult-favorite eco-friendly sunscreen is scentless, leaves a smooth finish, is great for all skin types, and is loaded with antioxidants. It even works as a great primer under your makeup.

5. Cocokind Daily SPF, $24

This lightweight and non-irritating eco-friendly sunscreen uses non-nano zinc oxide, blue phytoplankton, and microalgae in order to protect your skin against UVA and UVB rays, pollution, and even blue light from electronic devices.


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Wondering how to choose an eco-friendly sunscreen? We got a dermatologist's advice. Here are five top-notch options to try.

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