What Makes Sunscreen ‘Reef-Safe’?

If you’re not using reef-safe sunscreen, the chemicals in your product might be harming whatever coral reef you swim near.

fish swimming in coral reef

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:

  • 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

Let’s say you’re on vacation in Hawaii, about to go snorkeling above a coral reef. To protect 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.

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:

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. Recently 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.

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 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.

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Comments (2)

  • Hi Joseph, Zinc Oxide is highly eco toxic in aquatic environments when you take a look at its msds. There is a heck of a lot more research needed on what’s impacting coral as mostly it’s global warming and plastic pollution.

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