How to pick a sunscreen that’s safe for you and the planet

By Maryclaire Manard

When a consumer decision arises that creates a need to balance protecting ourselves and protecting the planet, the right choice might not be as obvious. 

To see this dilemma play out, look no further than the tube of sunscreen you turn to this summer. 

Over the last century, we’ve had a complicated relationship with the sun and our skin. While our own knowledge of sun protection has evolved since the days of basking in tanning oil, a new consumer desire has entered the conversation: saving marine life.

Scientific research over the past decade has increased our collective concerns over the potential harmful impacts that the lotion we use to protect our skin may be having on marine life such as coral and aquatic plants. With the ever-growing need to preserve these biologically important marine ecosystems, many conscious consumers and coastal-adjacent governments have raised the alarm bells. In some locations, like Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Aruba, there are even bans on certain sunscreen ingredients in an attempt to stem further damage to corals (which are already suffering great loss of biomass due to coral bleaching from warming waters caused by other activities). 

At Cluey, we know better than most, that an area of concern for consumers can often result in companies engaging in certain activities that can border on “trustwashing” in order to capitalize on that particular concern. In this case, we saw the rise of companies labeling their sunscreen products as “reef safe,” “reef friendly,” “ocean friendly,” or a variety of other similar claims. While some of these claims may indeed be accurate, there are currently no standards by which these claims are measured or regulated, which can often lead to companies making up their own standards, and consumers being given a false sense of security. 

There is hope though that this area of consumer labeling may soon become more standardized, as the National Academy of Sciences is currently working on releasing a more formal report after convening with a committee of experts. Until that day comes however, summer is upon us, and you may be wondering what to do. 

Don’t fret, because we’ve got you covered.

We looked across our own data sources, plus the recommendations of other major consumer product and marine-expert sources to come up with (1) a clear winner (2) the “other strong contenders” list (3) the “avoid” list and (4) the “jury’s still out” list.. for sunscreens that are safe for both you and the planet.

The Research

In addition to Cluey’s own ratings and sources (which you can learn more about here), we also turned to research from the following publications:

  • Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (one of the leading centers of research in habitat conservation, and the creator of the “Protect Land + Sea” certification, the only of its kind)
  • Consumer Reports (a highly trusted, nonprofit organization dedicated to consumer transparency and safety)
  • The Surfrider Foundation (a nonprofit dedicated to the protection and enjoyment of our oceans)
  • Wirecutter (now owned by the New York Times, Wirecutter has made its name as a trusted go-to source for consumer product reviews)
  • Savethereef.org (a nonprofit combining the talents of storytelling to get the masses behind the initiatives to save our reefs)

Drumroll please…. 🥁

The winner in terms of the brand with the strongest overall rating on Cluey and most overall mentions across the other sources used in our research is…

Badger’s Mineral Sunscreen ProductsMy image alt text

Not only does Badger have a high score for social impacts and a top score for environmental impacts on Cluey for it’s demonstrated commitments to people and the planet, but it was also the only sunscreen brand that was mentioned across all five of the other sources we looked at outside of Cluey for their picks of sunscreens that made the cut. Not to mention, Badger is also a B Corp Certified brand and one of the select brands in the world to have the “Protect Land + Sea” certification from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory.

 My image alt text

The “other strong contenders” list 

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This list was composed of brands that either have a strong Cluey ranking + a mention on one of the five other sources we leveraged for this article, OR brands that were mentioned on two or more of the the five other sources leveraged for this article (even if there is not enough data for a Cluey rating)

The “avoid” list

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  • Neutrogena
  • Aveeno
  • Coppertone
  • any “spray” sunscreen
  • any sunscreen that contains any of the following active ingredients
    • Oxybenzone
    • Octinoxate
    • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
    • Octocrylene
    • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
    • Methyl Paraben
    • Ethyl Paraben
    • Propyl Paraben
    • Butyl Paraben
    • Benzyl Paraben
    • Triclosan

When it comes to brands and general tips on sunscreens to avoid for both your safety and that of marine life, there are a couple of important points to keep in mind: First, the three brands listed above were all part of the 2021 benzene sunscreen recall by the FDA. The first two brands, both owned by Johnson & Johnson, were of particular concern given that recent research has revealed that J&J and the FDA withheld important health knowledge of the risks from the public. This is not the first time J&J has had concerning consumer safety recalls in the last decade, and for these reasons, we recommend avoiding. Second, we recommend avoiding all “aerosol spray” products mostly due to concerns around consumer health. And third, any sunscreen products that contain “active ingredients” on the HEL list (above), should be avoided for marine safety concerns.

The “jury’s still out” list:

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  • Supergoop
  • Banana Boat
  • Sun Bum
  • Eucerin
  • Elta MD
  • Shiseido
  • Alba (While some of Alba’s products made the list on some of the other sources used for this article, Alba’s score on Cluey fails on both people and planet. This is largely due to its parent company, Hain Celestial, having a history of incidents around consumer quality and safety, ethics with animal welfare, and poor handling of emissions, effluents, and waste. Consumers who wish not to spend their money on that type of activity should avoid Alba.)
  • Australian Gold
  • Glossier

Brands on this list may come as a surprise to some consumers given their “clean” marketing, but these brands landed here for a few key reasons: they didn’t show up consistently across our sources, there isn’t enough data to rate them on Cluey, or if they are marketing newer products as “reef safe,” this may not apply to their entire product line, and for any or all of these reasons, the jury is still out on the following brands. This is not to say that some of these brands’ claims aren’t accurate, but we cannot come to a solid conclusion on these brands from our research at this time.

We hope this article has armed you with the information needed to make safe choices for you and the planet while enjoying fun in the sun this summer. ☀️

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