Updated: November 1, 2023
The state of Hawaii is famous around the world for its incredible beauty. Its eight main islands are perfect for vacations, offering visitors surf, sand, and even snow at the top of Mauna Kea.
Another thing Hawaii offers is wonderful weather. From average August days in the low 80s to January “chills” in the 70s, one thing is for sure: if you travel to Hawaii, you are going to need sunscreen.
Hawaii Vacation Highlights
If you want to get away from it all, Hawaii is the place for you because it is 2,400 miles from its closest neighbor, mainland USA.
Hawaii’s islands have much more going for them than their remoteness. With world-class hotels and restaurants to keep visitors comfortable and the spectacular Hawaiian outdoors to dazzle the senses, a Hawaiian vacation is hard to beat.
Volcanic eruptions created the island chain that makes up the state of Hawaii. Visitors to the island of Hawai’i, otherwise known as “the big island,” can hike dormant Mauna Kea.
If lava watching is more your style, there are eight currently active volcanoes shared by Hawai’i and Maui, the second largest island, all of which boast national park service visitor centers and well-tended trails to keep visitors safe.
The island chain’s volcanic activity is responsible for three strange sand colors on Hawaiian beaches: black, red, and green.
Black sand is created when lava cools in the ocean and is then ground down over time by the action of the waves.
Red sand forms when lava cools on the islands’ rocks and is exposed to the iron in them before being ground by the elements.
Green sand is caused when a volcano’s tuft ring, a ring of volcanic dust, hardens and then erodes. It is only found on four beaches in the world.
The majority of Hawaii’s beaches consist of soft white sand. Unlike white sand beaches in other parts of the world, which are composed primarily of quartz, Hawaii’s white sands are formed from the shells and skeletons of aquatic life, including coral.
Beachgoers love to cool off in Hawaii’s clear blue waters after relaxing on the hot sands. Other visitors come specifically for Hawaii’s world-renowned surfing.
There are Hawaiian beaches with gentle surf that is perfect for beginners and others with the most famous and ferocious breakers in the world.
Whale watching from the shore or a whale-watching boat is also popular with tourists. But beneath the surface of the Hawaiian sea is a hidden world of colorful activity.
Visitors can discover this world by snorkeling in shallow waters, or they can scuba dive deeper out at sea to observe more exotic plants and creatures. For a less-exhausting peek under the deeper sea surface, glass-bottom boat rides provide visitors with awe-inspiring views of Hawaiian sea life.
Hawaii Under Threat
What many visitors don’t know is that Hawaii’s aquatic life and ocean-based activities are under threat by dangerous sunscreen chemicals.
That’s right. The sunscreen we have been advised to apply liberally to protect exposed skin from UV rays is harming the ecosystem of one of the world’s premier holiday sites.
This has become such a problem that the Hawaiian government has stepped in on behalf of the coral reefs and the marine life that depends on them.
A while back, the government went as far as banning the sale of sunscreens that contain the harmful chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate that are causing such serious damage to Hawaii’s marine ecosystems.
How Oxybenzone and Octinoxate Damage Coral Reefs
When applied to human skin, oxybenzone and octinoxate protect against the UV rays that cause sunburn and potentially deadly disease.
But when people wearing sunscreens that contain these dangerous chemicals swim in the sea, those chemicals escape into it, lingering in the water until they attach to something.
The Ocean Foundation cites studies that estimate “412 pounds of sunscreen [are] deposited daily on the reef at Hanauma Bay” by swimmers, surfers, and divers. Yes, daily. And that’s just on one of Hawaii’s hundreds of beaches.
When oxybenzone and octinoxate come into contact with coral, especially baby coral, they make it susceptible to bleaching. Bleaching alone doesn’t kill coral, but it causes DNA damage and leaves it vulnerable to infections.
When added to other environmental stressors, such as rising sea temperatures and pollution, coral reefs that have been exposed to dangerous sunscreen chemicals experience such stress that they are dying.
Why Coral Reefs Matter
Coral reefs aren’t just beautiful.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, “They form one most diverse ecosystems in the world” and the Hawaiian reefs “support… more than 7,000 species of fishes, invertebrates, plants, sea turtles, birds, and marine mammals.”
If the coral reefs die, these plants and creatures lose their homes and food sources, and the knock-on effect to the planet, from human food production to pollution mitigation and climate control, will be devastating.
In addition, a healthy coral reef provides land along the shoreline with protection from soil erosion.
The Hawaiian islands are particularly vulnerable to this. Some of Hawaii’s shorelines, notably world-famous Waikiki Beach, are already suffering from bad erosion.
Other Damaging Sunscreen Ingredients
It isn’t just sunscreen chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate that can cause damage to the coral reef. The preservative butylparaben, commonly known as “paraben,” can also cause bleaching to baby coral exposed to it.
Parabens are suspected of causing health problems in humans, too, so search out products that advertise themselves as “paraben-free” or “PABA-free,” for both your skin and to help stop coral bleaching.
However, even if we keep the reef safe by avoiding dangerous and banned chemicals and instead opting for mineral-based sunscreens, we might still be causing damage to marine life. Mineral-based sunscreens have zinc oxide or titanium oxide as the active ingredients that offer sun protection.
Unfortunately, to achieve the smooth texture and ease of application customers like, some mineral-based sunscreen manufactures grind these active ingredients down to extremely small, or nano, particles and these are dangerous when ingested by marine life.
And Now, The Good News
The good news is that sunscreen manufacturers are beginning to make it easier to protect Hawaii’s natural assets.
Now that the environmental dangers of sunscreens containing the two chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate are becoming widely known, manufacturers are gradually ridding their products of these coral bleaching ingredients.
There is now a wide variety of reef safe sunscreen available that doesn’t contain oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Manufacturers are also providing labeling that helps customers avoid sunscreens with toxic chemicals and that advertise their products as “paraben-free” or “PABA-free” or as containing non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
In Hawaii, the government has made it even easier for people to find reef friendly sunscreen brands by enacting a Hawaii sunscreen ban that makes selling oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreens against the law.
The only exception to the Hawaii sunscreen ban is if the sunscreen has been prescribed by a doctor. So, if you buy sun protection in Hawaii, you know it will be reef safe sunscreen.
In Key West, Florida, these common chemicals have also been damaging the delicate marine ecosystem. Key West passed a law banning them shortly after Hawaii, and, hopefully, other states or municipalities will follow suit.
The Best Reef Friendly Sunscreens
Sunscreen can be expensive in Hawaii. Because of this, many visitors bring sunscreen from their home states where, unfortunately, coral reef toxic sunscreens remain readily available.
Outside of Hawaii, you can find safe sunscreens by looking out for labels reading “Reef Safe’’ or “Reef Friendly,” and you can also check listed ingredients.
But, we’ll make it even easier for you to find the best sunscreen products for a reef friendly Hawaiian vacation by listing some of our favorites.
Sun Bum Mineral Line SPF 30/50
The Sun Bum Mineral line of sunscreens is our top pick for the best reef friendly sunscreen in Hawaii. It’s arguably the most well known and feels the most natural on the skin – it’s super lightweight and not greasy at all. It’s also fragrance free, and provides Broad Spectrum protection from both UVA and UVB rays.
We prefer the roll on lotion, but there’s also the spray version, too, which might be easier to apply evenly. They also have reef safe face-specific sunscreens (try saying that five times fast) and lip balms, too.
Aveeno Baby Sunscreen SPF 50
If it’s good enough for a baby’s skin, you can be sure this pediatrician-recommended, reef safe sunscreen is ideal for sensitive wearers and offers excellent broad-spectrum protection from the sun’s rays.
All Good Sport Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
This water-resistant sunscreen’s active ingredient is non-nano particle zinc oxide. It also contains coconut oil and aloe vera to nourish the wearer’s skin.
Badger SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen Cream
This reef-friendly sunscreen is 98% organic and GMO and nano-free. It is also hypoallergenic and a great sunscreen for sensitive skin.
Banana Boat Sport Sunscreen
Reef-safe sunscreens from Banana Boat come with a variety of sun protection factors. They are water-resistant making them great for people who enjoy Hawaii’s many aquatic activities.
Blue Lizard Reef Friendly Sunscreen SPF 50
This sunscreen is part of Blue Lizard’s “We Love the Reef” line, so it contains no toxic chemicals. It is also paraben and fragrance-free. The bottle’s cap is equipped with smart cap technology which turns it blue when in harmful UV light.
Hawaiian Tropic Sheer Touch Lotion, Sport, and Silk Hydration SPF 30
This reef-safe sunscreen is free of mineral oil, so it is non-greasy. It includes antioxidant vitamins A and C to nourish wearers’ skin while safe chemical filters protect it from sun damage.
Loving Naturals Clear Body SPF 30+ All-natural Sunscreen
Packed with nourishing oils, including jojoba oil, this non-nano, zinc oxide, reef-safe sunscreen is great for protecting sensitive skin from the sun’s harmful rays.
Manda Organic SPF 50 Sun Paste
This is a reef-safe paste, rather than a lotion or spray. It is ideal for active wearers as it is long-lasting and sits on top of the skin, instead of sinking into it. The paste can be applied thickly and visibly to ensure great sun protection when surfing or sailing.
Olita Mineral Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30
Olita’s non-nano, non-GMO, reef-safe sunscreens are also organic and come in TSA-approved pocket sizes, making them handy for health-conscious travelers who want to keep Hawaii reef safe.
Raw Elements SPF 30
This is a moisturizer combined with reef-friendly sunscreen. It is an ideal facial moisturizer for everyday use because it isn’t only on the beach that ultraviolet rays can damage our skin.
Reef Repair Suncream SPF 50+
This is one of the best reef-safe sunscreens for active kids and adults because it is water-resistant for up to an hour and contains planet-friendly biodegradable ingredients.
Stream2Sea SPF 30 Mineral Sunblock
A little drop of this non-greasy lotion goes a long way, providing serious UV coverage in an easy-to-carry small container. It is gentle on the skin and doesn’t sting if it gets into the wearers’ eyes.
Suntegrity Natural Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30
Climate-friendly and with reef-safe sunscreen ingredients, this unscented lotion is a great mineral sunscreen for sensitive skins.
Thinksport SPF 50 Sunscreen
This reef-safe sunscreen is also vegan and climate-friendly. The active ingredient is non-nano zinc oxide. It is also water-resistant for up to 80 minutes after application.
The Difference Between Mineral Sunscreens and Chemical Sunscreens
There are two main types of mineral sunscreen and each works a little differently. Zinc oxide acts as a reflector, directing ultraviolet light away from the skin. Titanium dioxide absorbs UVA and UVB rays before they can enter the skin.
Chemical sunscreens also absorb ultraviolet light before it can damage the skin.
In short, both types of sunscreen are very effective and can be purchased in reef-safe versions, providing you read the labels carefully.
UVA and UVB Protection
SPF values indicate protection against sun damage caused by UVB exposure. Sunscreens that advertise themselves as “broad spectrum” provide both UVA and UVB protection, which is important because UVA rays penetrate the skin more deeply and cause more damage.
The Right Way to Apply Sunscreen
Now you know what to look for in the best sunscreen for reef-safe fun, here is how to use it effectively.
● To protect your skin from being damaged by UV rays, the Skin Cancer Foundation recommends you wear sunscreen that has a skin protection factor (SPF) of a minimum of 30.
● Don’t wait until the last minute to apply sunscreen. Most sunscreens take around 15 minutes for their ingredients to become activated.
● Reapply sunscreen every 2 hours throughout the day because even sweat- and water-resistant sunscreen lose their effectiveness over time.
● Make sure you don’t miss spots. If the sun hits skin that isn’t protected by sunscreen, it will quickly burn.
● Keep a tube of reef-safe sunscreen handy even when you aren’t on the beach because you never know when you will need to add some to get optimal Hawaii SPF.
Other tips for staying safe in the sun include avoiding the mid-day sun and covering up with a hat and protective clothing.
Enjoy Your Trip!
Now that you know how to enjoy Hawaii and protect its shores and ocean life, book a trip and make sure you have plenty of reef-safe sunscreen in your beach bag!