If you’re not using reef-safe sunscreen, the chemicals in your product might be harming whatever coral reef you swim near.
Many popular brands of sunscreen contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, chemicals that protect against ultraviolet rays.
Unfortunately, these key ingredients in chemical-based sunscreens put coral in a state of distress, according to a 2016 study, and can damage the ecosystem in the following ways:
- Coral Bleaching: turning coral from its natural color to pale colors, indicating a vulnerability to infection and inability to absorb nutrients
- DNA damage
- Abnormalities in growth and skeletal structure
How Sunscreen Is Damaging Our Coral Reefs
Let’s say you’re on vacation in Hawaii, about to go snorkeling above a coral reef. To provide some sun protection to your skin, you apply a smattering of sunscreen. You jump into the water and stare at the rich, colorful ecosystem below.
Around you, there are dozens of other people, also covered in sunscreen. Invisible bits of the sticky substance gradually fall off your skin and drift down onto the coral and its inhabitants.
Throughout the day, hundreds of people repeat this process, and the pieces of shed sunscreen add up. The chemicals saturate the coral until it can no longer survive.
When the coral dies, its inhabitants lose their homes and often perish as well. The National Park Service estimates that nearly one million species of fish, invertebrates and algae live in and around coral reefs. These creatures are valuable sources of food, and some of them are essential to keeping the ocean healthy and habitable.
What Makes a Sunscreen “Reef-Safe” or “Reef-Friendly”?
Fortunately, there are brands of sunscreen that reduce this environmental damage and protect your skin as well as chemical formulas. Usually what makes sunscreen “reef-safe” is the reliance on minerals and a variety of natural ingredients. Our sunscreen, for example, contains chamomile, lemon balm and bits of shrubs.
Most popular brands of reef-safe sunscreen are healthier than chemical brands because they do not use the following controversial ingredients:
- Parabens: linked to hormone disruption and cancer
- Sodium lauryl sulfates: can cause skin irritation and disruption to aquatic environments
- Phthalates: linked to asthma and other health issues
The problem, though, is there isn’t any legal definition for what makes something “reef-safe.” Brands can make the claim based on research from other people. There’s no government authority that requires companies to test whether their specific products are harmful to coral reefs.
Nonetheless, some local governments are taking steps to regulate sunscreen that damages coral reefs. In 2018, Hawaii Governor David Ige signed a bill that banned the use of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate (those harmful chemicals we mentioned earlier), making Hawaii the first state to implement such legislation. The city of Key West recently followed with a ban of the same ingredients in 2019.
But eliminating oxybenzone and octinoxate might only be step one. There are other common sunscreen ingredients that could be detrimental to marine life, according to Craig Downs, Executive Director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. Downs mentioned octocrylene, homosalate and octisalate. Octocrylene in particular might be negatively impacting the population of zebrafish, according to a 2014 study.
The good news is there are still plenty of brands that do not rely on any of these chemicals. With these types of sunscreen, you can lather up and have some fun that is reef-safe, guilt-free and better for your body.
It’s also important to remember that sunscreen products boasting over SPF 50 could be misleading. In reality the difference in protection between SPF 30, SPF 50 and anything above SPF 50 is minimal.
6 Reef-Safe Sunscreen Brands
Want to find some reef-safe sunscreen without having to labor over the ingredients? Here’s a selection of six popular reef-safe sunscreen products, including our very own formulation.
Looking for a high-quality reef-safe sunscreen? Take a look at our own easy-to-apply mineral sunscreen, sourced from 100% natural ingredients and safe enough to lather on your baby.
We’ve formulated this sunscreen to protect your skin from UV rays without using hazardous chemicals that could harm both coral reefs and human beings. Our cruelty-free vegan sunscreen is water-resistant for 80 minutes. It contains all-natural ingredients like jojoba oil, chamomile and lemon balm.
Made in Hawaii, Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian Natural Zinc Sunscreen is a reef-safe and ocean-safe product that is completely octinoxate and oxybenzone-free. This broad-spectrum sunscreen does not contain any toxic ingredients found in chemical sunscreens, such as parabens and phenoxyethanol. It also contains 25% zinc oxide that is “non-nano,” which helps protect against UVB rays and UVA rays.
Thinksport SPF 50 sunscreen is another mineral sunscreen that is free of harmful chemicals and marketed as reef-safe. Similar to Kokua’s sunscreen product, Thinksport offers a mineral sunscreen with a “non-nano” zinc oxide solution that protects against both UVB and UVA rays.
Another Hawaii-made sunscreen that is both skin and reef-safe is Mama Kuleana Waterproof SPF 30 sunscreen. Like the other brands in this list, Mama Kuleana’s SPF 30 sunscreen forgoes the harmful ingredients commonly found in chemical sunscreens. You’ll find a number of natural ingredients, including shea butter, coconut oil, beeswax, non-nano zinc powder and more. It’s even packaged in a biodegradable sunscreen container that is completely plastic-free, providing an extra boost of sustainability.
Another SPF 30 sunscreen lotion that is considered reef-safe comes from the lifestyle brand All Good. Offering SPF 30 broad-spectrum protection, this lightweight and non-greasy formula can resist water for up to 80 minutes. Ingredients include organic green tea, rose hips and buriti oil, which help to repair damaged skin.
MANDA Organic Sun Paste is a unique option for surfers and those who like to indulge in watersports. It’s a performance-driven SPF 50 sun paste that is formulated to sit on top of the skin, leaving a visible layer that maximizes sun protection. Included in its list of fully all-natural food-grade ingredients is Thanaka oil, which is derived from a small tree in Myanmar and provides natural sun protection, reducing the need for zinc oxide. Finally, this sun paste comes packaged in a bamboo and tin container that is completely recyclable.
A Reef-Safe Sunscreen Cheat Sheet
Want to find out if your own favorite sunscreen is actually “reef-safe?”
Without regulation, the term “reef-safe” doesn’t necessarily mean that the sunscreen you’re purchasing is truly safe for our oceans. Instead of just relying on the term, here’s what ingredients to look for:
- mineral oil/petrolatum
- oxybenzone (or benzophenone-3)
- parabens (in this case butylparaben)
Grey Area Ingredients
“Reef-safe” generally refers to products that don’t contain octinoxate and oxybenzone. The state of Hawaii, among areas, has banned sunscreens with these two chemicals.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide often act as alternative ingredients. These chemicals are classified as nanoparticles, particles that are between one and 100 nanometers.
Some scientists are concerned that artificial nanoparticles could be negatively impacting the environment. Nonetheless, the scientific community agrees that more research needs to be conducted to reach a conclusion.
Quick Tips for Safe Shopping
Don’t have time to sift through the ingredients? Here are some quick tips to make shopping for reef-safe sunscreen easier:
- Use a rub-on lotion rather than a spray: Why are sunscreen lotions better for coral reefs than spray sunscreen products? Spray sunscreen can easily land on the sand and seashells and wash right into the ocean.
- Choose a mineral sunscreen: According to the National Park Service, mineral sunscreens do not cause coral bleaching and therefore are less impactful to our reefs compared to chemical sunscreens.
- Look for the term “non-nano” on mineral sunscreen products: This language means the particles in the sunscreen are larger than 100 nanometers, which is too large for coral to ingest.
- Make sure to choose a water-resistant sunscreen: Any sunscreen that has a higher resistance to water will be less likely to wash off in the ocean.
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