The Sunscreen Lowdown
#1: Only 2 active ingredients have the FDA’s official stamp of approval
The FDA has only given 2 out of the 16 current active ingredients their “GRASE” (Generally Recognized As Safe and Effective) approval: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. When applying sunscreen, these active ingredients are your best bet. The other major active ingredients that you'll find in many sunscreens (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate) show up in your bloodstream and stay there for up to a week after even just a single use. While the FDA doesn't discourage any sunscreen use, your safest bet is to stick to the stuff that forms a physical layer of protection (zinc and titanium dioxide) rather than using those other rather tongue-twisty ingredients.
#2: Not all formulas are created equalThe FDA’s proposed regulation for SPF will not consider certain formulations as GRASE without further research & data from the industry. Powders, wipes, washes, & other forms of SPF don’t have enough data to back up their effectiveness so you’re better off sticking to formulations including lotions, creams, & sprays. On a slightly related note, "waterproof" sunscreen does not exist. Every sunscreen will wash off eventually, so be sure to reapply regularly, according to the directions on the bottle.
#3: SPF & bug sprays are a bad combinationThe FDA's regulation will not qualify any SPF products that contain bug-repellent ingredients as “GRASE.” The only way to get both sun protection and bug repellency is by using bug-repellent clothing which also covers up your skin. If you really need bug spray and sunscreen, make sure you use them as separate products and wait for one to fully dry before applying the other.
#4: “Reef-safe” is not always safe for reefs
In fact, the term “reef-safe” is not regulated in any way which means companies can legally make all kinds of claims about their SPF being reef-safe. And even if an SPF is free of oxybenzone and octinoxate (the worst SPF ingredient offenders for oceans), oils and other ingredients in your sunscreen could be polluting and damaging marine ecosystems.
Always look for "non-nano zinc oxide" as your active ingredient - this specific type of zinc cannot be absorbed by corals or other marine life. Visit the FDA website to see the latest articles on sunscreen use and regulations (this one is the easiest on the eyes, in our opinion).
OUR TOP PICKS
For the ocean-loverThe best way to give your skin sun protection while protecting the ocean is by depending on sunscreen as a last resort when you’re in the water. When you're not in the water, wear hats & clothing that adequately cover your skin. When you’re ready to dive in, we’ve got swim apparel that’ll provide UVA/UVB protection while you’re in the water. If you’re gonna be in the water for a while and you don’t have the option of going without, opt for sunscreens with non-nano particle zinc oxide as the SPF ingredient, like ThinkSports’ Sunscreen Stick SPF 30 or Salt & Stone's SPF 30 Water Resistant Lotion.
For the tiny tots
If you’ve got babies (or toddlers who still allow you to dress them entirely), clothing and hats are going to be their #1 line of defense, mostly because it’s the #1 line of defense for anyone.
While hanging out at the beach or park, they’ll be able to crawl around under these tents & shades, no problem. Be sure to apply a gentle, physical barrier (that means chemical-free, using zinc oxide or titanium oxide only) sunscreen to any exposed skin. We like Thinksports’ Thinkbaby Safe SPF 50+ lotion. Be sure to use a cream or lotion sunscreen for your littles – spray-on sunscreens are not as effective at protecting delicate skin like theirs’.
For bug & sun protectionWhile the FDA does not recommend a 2-in-1 product, we’ve found that the ExOfficio BugsAway apparel line does a pretty darn good job at both! Many pieces are even UPF 50+!
For everyday face protection
Believe it or not, the sun is up in the sky literally every day. We know, pretty wild. So, every time you go outside, you really should be wearing some kind of sunscreen on your always-exposed face and neck. And because all drains do eventually lead to the ocean, you'll want to choose reef-friendly (non-nano zinc) sunscreen for your everyday use as well. Here are some of our favorites: Sun Bum Mineral Tinted Face Lotion has a sheer tint that works great as a matte-finish primer (if you're into that sort of thing). ThinkSport Everyday Face SPF 30+ includes just enough tint to offset the whiteness from the non-nano zinc and is tested for up to 80 minutes of water- and sweat-resistance.