The best eco-friendly mineral sunscreen

“Eco-friendly” may be a relative term, but Hawaii and Mexico have signed bills into legislation banning two reef-toxic and potentially human-toxic active ingredients found in chemical sunscreens. According to recent research conducted by ecotoxicologists in Hawaii and the Virgin Islands published in the journal “Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology,” these ingredients are “bleaching” – that is, killing – coral reefs by damaging their endocrine and immune systems to a point at which they’re left with an even lower threshold for globally-warming waters.

Chemical sunscreens work well, which is why most of us who wear sunscreen have been using them since their inception. But how, exactly, do they work? They soak into our skin, where they then absorb UV rays by using one or more of the following “active,” or sun-screening organic compounds: avobenzone, oxybenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, octocrylene, and homosalate.

These chemicals have proven toxic to small marine and possibly other aquatic animals, and even if you’re not spending the day by the sea, will enter watersheds when you rinse them off in the shower. They also might be toxic to you, but the scientific jury’s still out on that as of yet.

Mineral-based sunscreens, on the other hand, almost exclusively use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, which mostly remain on the skin’s surface and reflect UV rays. This is why it’s so difficult to get these heavy metals to rub in, because, as a matter of principle, they don’t. We’ve found several great options that blend in better than other mineral sunscreens without sacrificing protection.

Plus, there are a couple of ways to reduce the streaky mess mineral sunscreens tend to leave on our skin and clothes. For one: Apply this paste well before you step outside, but also before you get dressed, and let it soak in as much as possible. This seems to help reduce staining on clothes. And secondly, though tinted mineral-based sunscreens will still stain your clothes, they seem to blend surprisingly well with most skin tones, despite being an alarming pale orange in the tin.

We’ve tested several mineral sunscreens to find the best ones that are effective, look good, and won’t hurt the environment.

Here are the best mineral sunscreen you can buy:

Updated 10/24/19 by Jada Wong: Updated prices, formatting, and links. We’ll frequently update this guide because we’re continually testing mineral-based sunscreens as we come across them.


The best mineral sunscreen overall

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Amazon/All Good

All Good sunscreens are all waterproof and made a small selection of high-quality, all-organic inactive ingredients on top of a generous (but not gloppy) 25% concentration of zinc oxide.

All Good is clean, inoffensive smelling (no strawberry daiquiri scents here), and has a short list of high-quality, easy-to-pronounce inactive ingredients in addition to the (active) zinc oxide. Not too gloppy, not too dry, this is a mineral sunscreen that doesn’t take much effort to apply, and leaves a minimal cast, and as an outdoors enthusiast outside of the office, I tend to rely on All Good most often.

Apart from blending well, it has a minimal ingredient list, and a healthy helping of zinc oxide (25%) to ensure that you get full coverage (about 20% is the recommended amount according to The Sunscreen Doc, but a bit more doesn’t hurt).

Except for All Good’s kids’ spray sunscreens, the brand receives a top rating from the Environmental Working Group (EWG) based on their ingredient list. While it’s important to note that the EWG doesn’t test sunscreens for consistency or applicability, they do account for every ingredient listed, rating them based on scientific research findings (from within and without the organization) relating to toxicity and other potential health and environmental hazards. We use this as a guideline, but not a definitive recommendation.

The secondary concern we have as consumers is, of course, whether or not a sunscreen will make us look like Casper the Friendly Ghost, or the proverbial zinc-oxide-clad snout of a lifeguard on their tower. (For a truly cosmetic-friendly sunscreen, you might consider Beatycounter’s Countersun sunscreen, which we reviewed.)

Apart from its EWG endorsement, All Good also receives praise from Goop, Mother Jones and Organic Authority, with the latter emphasizing that it’s long-lasting and works exceptionally well on little ones, though it does leave a slight cast.

While all mineral sunscreens are going to leave a little trace, at least at first, some blend in better than others. The issue we find over and over again in our research is that many products are too quick to set, and almost impossible to rub in; All Good has, even after incessant exposure to elements, held consistency and remained highly applicable in our experience. Our favorite is the Organic Sunscreen Butter, which doesn’t quite rub in as well (at least not as immediately) as All Good’s Tinted SPF 30, but includes a healthy 25% concentration of zinc oxide as opposed to 12%, and comes in a compact one-ounce (plastic-free) tin. – Owen Burke, Senior Reporter

Pros: Wide variety of sunscreens, many come in eco-friendly/non-plastic containers

Cons: None, but we wish all of All Good’s products come in eco-friendly containers


The best affordable mineral sunscreen

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Thinksport

Thinksport’s SPF 50+ Sunscreen offers optimal but affordable protection without any potentially harmful chemicals.

Zinc oxide and purified water are the main ingredients in Thinksport’s Sunscreen, which is a great option for the hypoallergenic and eco-conscious buyer alike. Although it can leave you a bit pasty – as practically all mineral-based sunblocks do – it does eventually blend while still managing to offer superior UVA and UVB protection.

Amazon buyers gave it an average of 4.2 stars out of nearly 350 reviews, complimenting it on everything from its ability to blend, its high rating from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), and its affordable price per ounce. Some complain that it dries their skin out too much, which zinc oxide tends to do, and many others had trouble rubbing it in.

If you find blending zinc oxide into your skin to be a nuisance, you might go for Thinksport’s Everyday Face, which comes with a natural tint and blends with most complexions. Just take care around clothes, car seats, or anything else you want to avoid staining, and to that end, it probably won’t do too well in water.

We’re also a big fan of Badger’s array of sunscreens, especially for watersports – and the SPF 34 Anti Bug Sunscreen is my personal favorite, though I have no qualms about going outside looking like a streaky white mess.

Badger’s sunscreen becomes especially handy where tropical, disease-ridden mosquitoes abound, but it’s probably not for everyone. We’re looking into other options, but this is a wonderful, industrial-strength option for deeper, buggier expeditions.

Pros: Affordable, superior protection, plastic-free container

Cons: Requires some effort to rub in


The best spray-on mineral sunscreen

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Facebook/Supergoop!

Supergoop’s Mineral Sunscreen Mist isn’t the best protection you’ll get with mineral sunscreen, but it’s the best spray-on one we’ve found yet. It goes on cleanly, smoothly, and evenly.

Generally speaking, spray-on sunscreens aren’t the best because we tend to spray them on too thinly and miss spots entirely. Mineral sunscreens are even more troublesome because they don’t tend to spray well in the first place, and often dry out to the point of becoming impossible to use.

Supergoop’s Mineral Sunscreen Mist works fairly well, but it’s light-duty, and while it rubs in with hardly any residue, it only contains 12% zinc oxide, which falls short of the recommended 18% (or more). Still, it’s the best we’ve found.

Our previous pick, from Bare Republic, had a combination of 15% zinc oxide and 4.3% titanium dioxide, which seems just right, and spreads evenly, but still left a white cast. Then, over time, our samples suddenly began to thicken to the point of being nearly solid, and we couldn’t get it to spread or rub in.

What you can do with Supergoop’s Mineral Sunscreen Mist is vigilantly apply it frequently (maybe every hour) to make up for the lower SPF rating.

In the end, most of us aren’t trying to look pasty on the plage, and we get that. Supergoop strikes a happy medium between how much people care about protecting their skin and putting themselves at risk for skin cancer, how much they don’t want that white cast, and, of course, how much they want to look tan. The Huffington Post, The Strategist, and Glamour all love Supergoop for this reason. Give Supergoop a go, but make sure to reapply often.

Editor’s note: We’re in the process of testing and reviewing Supergoop’s Play sunscreen, too, which comes with ample zinc oxide and a touch of titanium dioxide. We like it so far, and will report back soon. Read more about our findings so far at the bottom of this page.

Pros: Applies easily and cleanly, works fairly well

Cons: Expensive, not quite the recommended amount of active ingredients in most sunscreens


The best tinted mineral sunscreen

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Amazon

Raw Elements’ Tinted Facial Moisturizer with SPF 30 can be worn for just about any occasion under the sun.

I haven’t found any mineral-based sunscreens that apply sheerly, but I have, however, found a few options that come naturally tinted and seem to blend pretty well with a variety of skin tones, and my favorite so far is Raw Elements’ Tinted Facial Moisturizer.

While it is definitely on the greasier side, it blends in better than any I’ve tried to date, so it ought to accommodate those who are understandably averse to showing up at the beach looking like The Friendly Ghost, but who still have an interest in keeping sunburn at bay. It also seems to serve as a decent foundation for makeup for some, but you’ll want to apply it well ahead of anything you’re planning on putting over it.

And, if tinted sunscreen isn’t your thing, and you don’t mind having a bleach-white face for a few minutes until your sunscreen soaks in (maybe about 20-40 minutes), I’d go with the Face & Body formula. I found that if you’re not terribly careful with the tinted stuff, it can be quite messy.

As with most mineral-based sunscreens, this stuff clogged my pores and eventually made me break out, which, of course, is all part of a day or week in the life of testing an endless slurry of products on your behalf, dear reader.

But in all seriousness, as long as you make sure to wash mineral-based sunscreens off thoroughly – though it might require a brillo pad – you should be fine, and if you have especially sensitive or oily skin, a simple facial mask should take care of you. I like Mario Badescu’s Drying Mask, which, ironically enough, is a tan-hued mineral-based paste not unlike the sunscreen you’d be asking it to remove.

I also went ahead and used Raw Elements’ tinted paste on my neck, arms, and legs, and my skin might have taken on a sort of ashy-grey-orange tone at first, but it faded in short order, and I didn’t burn at all.

Pros: Affordable, plastic-free container

Cons: Oily, can stain clothes, especially before it soaks in


The best mineral facial sunscreen for swimming and surfing

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Manda

Manda’s SPF 50 Organic Sun Paste with Thanaka is about as stripped down as sunscreen gets with eight very basic and natural ingredients

Most sunscreens, even the ones that claim water-resistance, wash off pretty quickly in the water, and especially in the surf. Surfers and swimmers need something that water won’t ablate. Manda doesn’t wash off, and to that point, doesn’t run at all, so you shouldn’t find it burning your eyes.

It also will not rub in, and if it does, you’ve probably spread it too thin, or at least beyond its optimal efficacy. For that reason, I wouldn’t recommend it for running about town, but it works wonders for aquatic enthusiasts, as well as perspiring, landlubbing athletes who spend prolonged periods of time in intense and/or direct sunlight.

The short list of early Amazon reviews for this somewhat new product sing its praise for withstanding the harshest of equatorial climes, and surf-centric blog The Inertia raved about it too.

And while khaki/beige might not be the most flattering hue to smear over any shade of human flesh, it sure beats ghost white or atomic orange. Although Manda‘s 20% concentration of zinc oxide can simultaneously dry out your skin and clog your pores, Manda has taken the unique step to include what might be the oldest sunscreen known to humankind.

Thanaka, the mustard-yellow paste that gives Manda its tint, is made from a small, shrubby, southeast Asian tree by the same name, and was made popular over two millennia ago in Myanmar for a bevvy of dermatological reasons.

Apart from being a mildly effective natural sunscreen, thanaka is a regenerative antioxidant and an anti-bacterial, anti-fungal moisturizer that is also regularly used by the Burmese to treat acne. Further, it’s likely that it inhibits the enzyme tyrosine’s production of melanin, which might help reduce the development of melanoma and even brighten your complexion – not that it needs brightening.

This sunscreen – weirdly – is also entirely food-safe. I personally tested that claim, and may or may not have reached for seconds.

Pros: Familiar, all-natural, and food-safe ingredients

Cons: Expensive (but not bad if you only use it on your face)


How to choose a mineral sunscreen that’s safe for the environment

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All Good Brand/Facebook

While zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have been researched, tested, and mostly endorsed as reasonably safe sunscreen ingredients for many decades, the jury is still largely out on the active organic compounds used in chemical sunscreens, which are considerably younger.

Although mineral-based sunscreens are preferable because they have been tested extensively and deemed largely safe for people and the environment, they are not entirely free from controversy, either.

Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are powders that can be manufactured as ultra-fine nanoparticles (measured in nanometers, or billionths of a meter), which allow these thick sunscreens to go on sheerly without leaving a white residue, and appear to be harming reefs, too. Plus, as with most powders, they’re also potential respiratory toxins in high enough concentrations.

NPR reported in 2015 on a study published in the journal “Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology,” which estimated that some 6,000-14,000 tons of sunscreen end up lathering coral reefs worldwide every year. This past year, forensic ecotoxicologist Craig Downs, Ph.D., told Vogue to look for products with “non-nano” ingredients larger than 150 nanometers, at which size their toxicity level to sea creatures – and you, as a respiratory threat in spray-ons – becomes minute.

Navigating the retail market with this information can be tricky. Terms that suggest environmental and social responsibility like “reef-safe” and “non-nano” are largely, if not entirely unregulated, so take them with a grain of salt, and do your best to find brands that support these claims. We will, too.