How to Choose Sustainable Sunscreen

When shopping for sunscreen, opt for products that are free of oxybenzone, octinoxate, titanium oxide, and synthetic fragrances. Instead, choose sunscreens that contain non-nano zinc oxide. Our favorite sunscreens are certified by Protect Land + Sea (which ensures the product is free of chemicals harmful to ocean and land ecosystems), EWG (which ensures the product is free from chemicals of concern to humans and the environment), Fair Trade (which benefits the people making the product), and PETA or Leaping Bunny (which ensure no animal testing was performed using the product). Choose sunscreen lotions and creams over aerosols if possible.

What to Know


Oxybenzone and Octinoxate

Sunscreens contain a few chemicals that are particularly problematic, including oxybenzone and octinoxate, two of the most commonly used UV blockers. Researchers all over the world have determined that these two infamous chemicals are harmful to marine life, in part because they are made of nanoparticles. When these nanoparticles get washed off of our skin and into the water, they are absorbed by coral, upon which they have devastating effects. These chemicals impair the DNA of coral so that it becomes sterile and unable to reproduce. They also cause coral to trap heat. When coral reaches a certain temperature, it expels the algae that grows on it and provides it with protection and nutrients. When the algae leaves, the coral turns white (hence “coral bleaching”), and usually dies. Hawaii has banned the sale of products with oxybenzone and octinoxate, and we strongly suggest avoiding any sunscreen with these ingredients.

Zinc Oxide

Zinc oxide is a white powder derived from the mineral zincite that is used as a skin protectant and sunscreen by reflecting and scattering UV radiation. It can come in different particle sizes: nano zinc oxide (nZnO) and non-nano zinc oxide (ZnO). Many of our recommended products are made with ZnO because its particles are bigger in size (at least 5x bigger) than those of nanoparticles, which gives them broad UVA protection properties and decreases their ability to be absorbed by our skin, plants, and other organisms in the environment.

While nZnO sunscreen is still super effective at blocking the sun’s rays and its small particles mean it can be more easily rubbed into a transparent layer on the skin, these particles are so small that they can also be absorbed by organisms in the environment, our skin, and even cell walls. While we have little understanding of the potential environmental and biological impacts of nZnO, we do know that these particles have proven to be more toxic towards algae than ZnO. Most of our recommended products do not include nZnO, but ultimately, you should choose what you’re most comfortable with.

Titanium Oxide

Titanium oxide is another physical sunscreen effective at preventing UV damage. Many studies show that the typical particle size of titanium oxide cannot penetrate through the skin even when the particle size is incredibly small, and it doesn't exhibit any kind of human toxicity. While titanium oxide is relatively safe for human use (when applied to the skin in a physical form), it’s not so friendly to the planet. Titanium oxide is shown to cause ecotoxicity in aquatic animals, zebrafish gills, and aquatic environments, disrupting biodiversity and promoting germination and root expansion in terrestrial plants. When considering sunscreens with titanium oxide, it’s important to weigh all potential costs – not just the human impact.

Synthetic Fragrances

The most elusive ingredient of all might be fragrances. That’s because fragrances are protected from disclosure. While “fragrance” might appear to be one ingredient on the label, that word could potentially comprise hundreds of chemical compounds just for one scent! It’s not the scent that worries us, but phthalates, which enable fragrances to become soluble. They are known endocrine disruptors in both humans and aquatic life and can even lower the production of testosterone. Studies have found that prenatal exposure to phthalates can decrease mental and motor development in children.


Protect Land + Sea

Protect Land + Sea independently tests sunscreen products to ensure that they contain none of the following ingredients that may be harmful to ocean and land ecosystems: microplastic beads, nanoparticles, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, octocrylene, PABA, any kind of paraben, triclosan, and of course, oxybenzone and octinoxate. These standards are updated every other year to keep up with the most recent scientific findings in ecotoxicity.


The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is a non-profit and its label ensures products are free from chemicals of concern to human health that are outlined in their unacceptable list. The EWG verifies products using data on ingredients and chemicals banned by governments, as well as known carcinogens and developmental toxins. Because companies have to pay for the verification, there is inherent bias… but they do source their ingredients data from reputable sources. In Finch’s rating system, we look at their ingredients data rather than companies certified by the EWG.

Leaping Bunny

Leaping Bunny is an internationally recognized symbol that guarantees no new animal tests were conducted on any of the ingredients in a product. It’s the most stringent animal rights standard, so prioritize this one if you want to alleviate your animal welfare concerns.

PETA Cruelty-Free

PETA’s Cruelty-Free offers a searchable database of companies and denotes whether they conduct, commission, or test their products on animals.


As a rule, choose sunscreen lotion or cream over aerosols whenever possible. Aside from being less efficient at coverage than creams, aerosols come in cans that, in order to achieve their misting effect, require hydrocarbons or compressed gasses that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which are prevalent in asthma-inducing smog. While some recycling programs accept empty aerosol cans that have their plastic caps removed, many still don’t due to the dangers of pressurized cans exploding in the sorting facility. Sadly, this means that plenty end up in landfills, where aluminum and steel can take centuries to decompose. To give yourself better protection and to limit the waste and emissions associated with aerosols, opt for lotions and creams instead.


Q: How can you tell if sunscreen is reef-friendly?

A: Unfortunately, “reef safe” claims do not have a federally agreed-upon or regulated definition, so sunscreen manufacturers are not required to test and demonstrate that “reef safe” products won’t harm marine life. The best bet is to look out for the Protect Land + Sea Certification, as that is the only certification that ensures all potentially harmful chemicals are not included in the product.

Q: Is there a natural sunscreen?

A: If we’re defining “natural” as not made or caused by people, then no. That said, individual ingredients or materials might be natural, but that does not mean they’re synonymous with being more “sustainable”. Many sunscreens today, including several that we recommend, are labeled as “natural”, but the natural component that they’re referring to is zinc oxide. It’s a white powder that occurs naturally in the mineral zincite, but the ingredient itself is synthetic. It’s also important to remember that not all zinc oxide is created equal. Check to see if the sunscreen is made with non-nano zinc oxide (nZnO) if it’s labeled as “natural”.