By now, we should all know about the importance of sun care and the value of a decent sunscreen: it’s vital to protect against sunburn and the ageing effects of the sun’s rays, but there’s also more to consider than simply which SPF to plump for.
Sunscreens fall into two major categories: physical and chemical. Containing tiny minerals, physical sunscreens act as a shield and deflect the sun’s rays, while chemical sunscreens make use of synthetic compounds that absorb UV light before reaching the skin.
But a growing awareness of the impact of ingredients common in chemical formulas, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, means that consumers and brands have begun to take action. In 2018, Hawaii became the first nation to ban sunscreens containing these compounds after scientists found that they were harmful to aquatic life.
We tested the below eco-friendly sunscreens, assessing aspects such as formulation, ease of application and how it wore on hot, sunny days. We also noted if we liked the packaging, including how easy it was to dispense the sunscreen and whether it was portable, for top-ups on the go.
Some of the options include methylene bis-benzotriazolyl tetramethylbutylphenol (MBBT). Although it’s an EU-approved UV filter, some have questioned its long-term impact. Eco-friendly sunscreens can be a complex business, and it’s worth doing further research or reaching out to brands if you’re particularly concerned about specific ingredients. There are also answers to some frequently asked questions about eco-sunscreen at the bottom of this article.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps us to fund journalism across The Independent.
The best eco-friendly sunscreens for 2021 are:
Best overall – Tropic Skincare great barrier sun lotion, 200ml: £28, Tropicskincare.com
Best for sensitive skin – Green People scent free sun cream SPF30, 200ml: £22, Biggreensmile.com
Best luxury sunscreen – Irene Forte SPF 30 sun cream UVA+ UVB, 100ml: £35, Ireneforteskincare.com
Best for children – Organii SPF 50 sun milk, 125ml: £23.95, Ethicalsuperstore.com
Best facial sunscreen – Pai Skincare British summer time sensitive sunscreen SPF30, 40ml: £29, Lookfantastic.com
Best sports sunscreen – Ultrasun sports gel SPF 50, 200ml: £19.28, Amazon.co.uk
Best budget-friendly sunscreen – Hawaiian Tropic mineral skin nourishing milk SPF30, 100ml: £9.99, Superdrug.com
Best for under make-up – Ren Clean Skincare clean screen mineral SPF30 mattifying face sunscreen, 50ml: £27.20, Feelunique.com
Best for easy application – Nivea protect and moisture sunscreen spray SPF30, 200ml: £5.99, Superdrug.com
Tropic Skincare great barrier sun lotion, 200ml
Free from oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene, this sun lotion from British brand Tropic skincare is actually a mix of chemical and mineral filters. It’s a bit confusing we know but bear with us – the chemical filters have been independently tested and deemed safe for both humans and the environment. It’s also been awarded an esteemed Protected Land + Sea certification, so we feel pretty confident. (It’s worth noting that the brand does also offer a mineral-only sunscreen range called Skin Shade.)
The great barrier range includes eco-friendly sunscreen favourites zinc oxide and titanium dioxide plus green algae extract, vitamin E, aloe vera, hyaluronic acid and coconut extracts. Helpfully, the brand’s website lists all of the ingredients, in both the industry-standard format and in a more comprehensible “plain English” version so you can work out what’s what. Each of the sun lotions arrive wrapped in a jazzy recyclable printed wrap, made from carbon-capture paper and vegetable ink (Tropic Skincare help support the Woodland Trust), which is a nice touch.
We were pleasantly surprised by the silky feel of this broad-spectrum, eco-friendly sun lotion. It dispenses well, thanks to a tube that is easy to squeeze, and has a consistency that’s not too runny, while the product itself sank in easily. We loved how hydrating and smooth this lotion left our skin feeling, with no trace of greasiness, chalky residue or a white cast. It’s also suitable for sensitive skin and comes in either SPF30 or SPF50.
Tropic Skincare also operates a refill return scheme. True, this sun lotion isn’t cheap, but the 200ml tube feels quite substantial. The brand also has a facial UV defence SPF50 product (£24, Tropicskincare.com), which has a multitude of awards under its belt.
Buy now £28.00, Tropicskincare.com
Pai Skincare British summer time sensitive sunscreen SPF30, 40ml
Best: Facial sunscreen
We’re already big fans of Pai Skincare’s vegan and cruelty-free range of products (the brand’s light work rosehip cleansing oil is a game changer), so naturally we were expecting good things from its bestselling British summer time sunscreen. Suitable for sensitive skin, the broad-spectrum sun protection contains cotton extract and non-nano zinc oxide (meaning the particles aren’t small enough to be absorbed or interfere with ocean life). It also protects against blue and infra-red light and isn’t greasy.
So, it ticks many boxes, including the fact that it smooths on easily, feels intensely hydrating, has a beautiful scent, leaves skin moisturised and is certified by Cosmos. The only issue we had with the product is the fact that at almost £30 for 40ml, it’s a pretty pricey buy. Saying that, if your budget stretches then it’s a great purchase and there is some good news: Pai has just announced a 75ml version (£39, Paiskincare.com). We also like the fact that Pai Skincare products come in un-laminated cardboard boxes (easier to recycle) and have the information printed on the inner cardboard rather than on an additional leaflet.
Buy now £29.00, Lookfantastic.com
Ren Clean Skincare clean screen mineral SPF30 mattifying face sunscreen, 50ml
Best: For under make-up
Highly acclaimed and much-loved by beauty editors, Ren’s clean screen mineral sunscreen has also won multiple beauty awards and is a bestseller for the brand. Coming in a tube made of 50 per cent post-consumer recycled plastic (with a lid made of 100 per cent PCRP), the 50ml bottle is a perfect size to pop in a handbag or toiletry bag. Thanks to its sunshine yellow packaging, it’s easy to spot too.
The lightweight formula, which contains 22 per cent non-nano, naturally derived zinc oxide, glides onto skin easily and any whiteness disappears once it’s been rubbed in. We loved the hydrating feel of this, as well as the fact that it doesn’t leave skin feeling greasy. Rice starch is the key ingredient for providing a matte finish, creating a perfect base for make-up products so they won’t slip and slide. We tried this broad-spectrum sunscreen, which also protects against blue light, on some of the hottest days 2021 has thrown at us so far, and are happy to note that as well as feeling weightless, it performed very well, with us almost forgetting we were wearing any facial sunscreen at all. A little of the product goes a long way, so although the tube is only 50ml, you will get a decent number of applications from it.
It’s also worth pointing out that the formula is vegan, doesn’t contain any chemical UV filters or silicone, and the brand is cruelty-free.
Buy now £27.20, Feelunique.com
Ultrasun sports gel SPF 50, 200ml
Best: Sports sunscreen
Wearing sunscreen when you’re taking part in sports events or working out alfresco is key, as there’s likely to be a good amount of skin on show, and hiding out in the shade won’t be a priority. Far too often you won’t even realise how exposed to the sun’s rays you’ve been until you go for a post-exercise shower. Step in Swiss brand Ultrasun, a well-known and trusted name in the sun care category – last year it was also named the world’s first completely ocean-friendly sunscreen after receiving the BASF EcoSun Pass (a credential that measures the environmental impact of formulas beyond their “reef-friendly” claims). Ultrasun is the only SPF brand to have received this accolade.
As well as boasting a wide variety of products (from tan-accelerating SPF to anti-pigmentation face fluid and lip-protection balms), the formulas are photostable (meaning filters won’t break down in the sun), hypoallergenic and don’t contain emulsifiers or perfume. There’s a lot to pick from in the range and while we were impressed with the family SPF30 (£17.99, Superdrug.com), it’s the transparent sports liquid gel with UVA and UVB SPF50 that we keep going back to.
Super lightweight, it sinks in really quickly and leaves skin with a slight sheen but no stickiness. It also dried instantly and left no sign, which we liked, so there’s no need to worry about smearing it over your workout clothes. Even during a very hot and intense cycle ride, we felt well protected and comfortable with the formula (which is vegan and doesn’t contain octocrylene) on our skin.
We didn’t try this ourselves, but have been assured that it is gentle enough to use on the scalp and is ideal for thinning or receding hair. The gel is very runny but thanks to the screw lid, the bottle didn’t leak, even when thrown in a bag and transported on a long journey, though this is worth keeping in mind when applying, so you don’t end up pouring out too much.
Buy now £19.28, Amazon
Green People scent free sun cream SPF30, 200ml
Best: For sensitive skin
Cruelty-free and eco-conscious brand Green People is one to have on your radar. As well as skincare, body and hair products, the brand also has an award-winning natural sunscreen range. We especially liked its scent-free sun cream, which makes the most of ingredients such as organic aloe vera, green tea and edelweiss to provide a formulation that is suitable for sensitive skin, eczema and for those who suffer from prickly heat. Although the cream is a little on the thicker side, after a good old rub into the skin it disappears, leaving no white cast or greasiness. It also feels very moisturising and gentle, meaning it’s perfect for all members of the family.
Titanium dioxide-based, the formula is made with 84.8 per cent certified-organic agricultural ingredients and fairly traded myrrha oil and African oil palm. It does contain nanoparticles (concerns have been raised about whether they cause damage to cells of invertebrates and can trigger an allergic reaction in humans) but there is a good explainer of why the brand uses them on its website, plus more in-depth information on the topic.
We like the fact that the sun cream comes in recyclable sugar cane packaging and that the squeezy tube makes dispensing a dollop an easy job. We’re also happy to see that 20p from each sale goes to the Marine Conservation Society – a charity that Green People has been supporting for more than a decade. It is worth noting, however, that despite a lot of Green People’s products being vegan, this sun cream isn’t, as it contains beeswax.
Buy now £22.00, Biggreensmile.com
Organii SPF 50 sun milk, 125ml
Best: For children
This fragrance-free, certified-organic SPF50 sun milk from sustainable brand Organii is a multiple award winner, proving particularly popular with families. It’s suitable for all ages, from babies to adults, and uses non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to reflect the sun’s rays. Add to those ingredients extracts of jojoba, olive, sunflower and linseed and you have an intensely nourishing formula that moisturises at the same time as protecting from UVA and UVB rays. Anti-inflammatory camomile and mallow leaf are included too, as is skin-softening favourite vitamin E and extracts of calendula.
We were slightly worried that the formula would leave a white cast, as on first look the mineral sun milk was bright white and of a rather creamy consistency, but we were pleasantly surprised at how quickly it disappeared into the skin with a quick rub. It left a nice, non-greasy sheen and it smelt wonderful. You can also find an SPF15 anti-ageing facial sun cream (£14.95, Organii.uk) from the brand, plus all their products are vegan and cruelty-free.
Buy now £23.95, Ethicalsuperstore.com
Hawaiian Tropic mineral skin nourishing milk SPF30, 100ml
Best: Budget-friendly sunscreen
Arguably producers of the most gorgeous-smelling sun lotions out there, Hawaiin Tropic has delighted us with its latest launch: a new range of mineral sun milks that shun oxybenzone and octinoxate in a bid to make them reef-friendly. Coming in packaging that is made using 25 per cent recyclable materials, the pump makes distributing as much as you need easy work. It’s also pretty compact and comes with a plastic cap so it’s easy to throw in a bag without fear of spillages.
Slightly thicker than traditional sun creams, but runnier than many of the mineral sunscreens we tried, the lightweight formula is pretty simple to rub in if you put in a bit of effort, and happily it didn’t leave us with a white cast on our olive skin or any sticky residue.
It goes without saying really that it smells delicious too, plus skin was left feeling hydrated thanks to coconut and kukui nut, which are both known for their moisturising and soothing properties. It’s also vegan-friendly and the brand is certified by Peta, meaning no ingredients, formulas or finished products are tested on animals, while 100 per cent mineral actives provide UVA and UVB protection with no chemical filters or parabens.
Eco-friendly sunscreens are notoriously pricey due to minerals – especially zinc oxide – being more expensive than synthetic chemicals, so it’s good to see an option that comes in under £10. We opted for the SPF30 for testing, but Hawaiian Tropic also have a SPF15 option (£9.99, Superdrug.com) as well as an SPF30 facial milk (£7.99, Superdrug.com).
Buy now £9.99, Superdrug.com
Nivea protect and moisture sunscreen spray SPF30, 200ml
Best: For easy application
The Nivea Sun range doesn’t really need any introduction – after all, who hasn’t come across the brand on a last-minute dash to the pharmacy at an airport? But, did you know that their sun care products are reef-friendly, as they don’t contain octinoxate, oxybenzone or octocrylene, and are also free from microplastics?
Offering UVA and UVB protection, the brand’s protect and moisturise SPF30 spray is one of those simple products that’ll suit even the fussiest of family members. Simply squirt the lotion onto the body, or the palm of your hand, and rub in. Nivea claims that the formula also works in balance with the skin’s biome.
We found this sunscreen spray super easy to dispense and apply, plus the lotion sinks in very easily, without leaving any stickiness. In our opinion, it’s suitable for even the laziest of appliers. The cap on the spray bottle meant that there were no spillages, and the bottle was lightweight enough to be carried in a beach bag, plus the bottle (minus the cap and pump) is made of 95 per cent recycled plastic. At under £6 for 200ml, it’s a real bargain too.
Buy now £5.99, Superdrug.com
Irene Forte SPF 30 sun cream UVA+ UVB, 100ml
Best: Luxury sunscreen
Pistachio, avocado and olive oils are just some of the nurturing ingredients that go into this luxe sun cream by Irene Forte Skincare. You can also count carrot, rich in beta carotene, in the mix, as it helps repair skin tissue.
We love the slightly thick, moisturising lotion, which almost felt more like a deeply nourishing body cream than a regular sunscreen. It took a bit of effort to rub, but once it sank in, it made us feel like we’d stepped out of a spa after a sumptuous treatment. Suitable for both face and body, we think the formula full of hydrating omega-rich oils would be especially good for dry or more mature skin.
With the principal ingredients for the products sourced from an organic farm belonging to the family of Irene Forte (wellness consultant and heiress to the Rocco Forte hotels) and the line also being accredited for sustainable excellence by Postive Luxury, you’re paying for a plush product that doesn’t cut any corners. The formula, which protects against UVA and UVB rays, is also vegan and free from parabens and colours, and, from what we could see, the ingredients don’t contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. The pump bottle is a little bulky, but we appreciate that some will like how chic it looks on a bathroom shelf. We also like the fact that the outer packaging is made from 100 per cent recycled fibres and printed with vegetable-based inks.
Buy now £35.00, Ireneforteskincare.com
Eco-friendly suncream FAQs
Why choose an eco-friendly sunscreen?
“The biggest concern about SPFs for the planet is the pollution that it does to the oceans, thus affecting the ecosystem of these delicate environments,” explains Dr Ross Perry, medical director of Cosmedics Skin Clinics.
According to The Ocean Foundation, an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen is believed to be deposited in oceans annually and it’s a big problem: protectants, preservatives and parabens found in chemical sunscreens, which wash off into the water, can endanger marine organisms and contribute towards coral bleaching.
What is an eco-friendly sunscreen?
So, what should we be considering when opting for an eco-friendly, or reef-friendly, sunscreen? Well, the first thing worth noting is that “reef-friendly” and “reef-safe” are not regulated terms. Generally speaking, though, eco-sunscreens are natural alternatives to traditional sunscreens: they are biodegradable and made of non-toxic ingredients, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which block the sun’s UV rays and include safe synthetic filters.
The most common mineral sun filters – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – are known to leave a white cast, so this can be an issue for darker skin tones, but with formulas becoming more advanced, a good rubbing in will usually make any white, chalky residue disappear.
Dr Perry also shares this useful piece of advice: “When looking for a coral-friendly sunscreen, ideally you’re looking for ones that don’t have oxybenzone and octinoxate ingredients, as these are known to cause the most damage to coral reefs.”
You should look out for the SPF rating of at least 30 for UVB, HEV filters to protect against blue light and, ideally, a five-star rating for UVA.
What are the skincare benefits of an eco-sunscreen?
“Eco-sunscreen is particularly suitable for people with sensitive skin or skin conditions such as eczema,” says Dr Lakhani, cosmetic doctor and skin care specialist at Harley Street’s Cranley Clinic. “Also, if you’re prone to sun rash or other issues like prickly heat, then eco-sunscreen can be particularly beneficial.”
The verdict: Eco-friendly suncreams
Tropic Skincare’s great barrier sun lotion has earned itself a spot in our beach bag, with its easy application, silky formula and hydrating finish. We were also impressed with Pai’s British summer time facial sunscreen, although it’s definitely one for a more generous budget. If you’re looking for something less pricey, then Hawaiin Tropic’s new mineral milk range is worth checking out, plus it smells fabulous.
For the latest discounts on sun care and other skincare offers, try the links below:
For more sustainably sourced products, read our guide to the best vegan and cruelty-free skincare brands