Reef-Safe Sunscreens: Why They Matter & How You Can Be #ReefFriendly
Every year millions of people wade into beautiful water bodies around the world, from pristine creeks at the top of the watershed to meandering streams, brisk rivers and peaceful lakes, then all the way down to coastal waters. We admire the teeming wildlife living around these waters - frogs, trout, salmon, bears, foxes and coral reefs. All of these waters are intimately connected, and are cornerstones of a healthy environment for plant, wildlife, marine life and human communities.
Every year we unknowingly shed thousands of tons of toxic, chemically laden sunscreen into these delicate ecosystems -- but together, we can do something about it.
While there are a number of sunscreens on the market that claim to be ‘natural’ or ‘safe’ for watery ecosystems, most fail to live up to their promises. Detailed studies show coral reefs and watery ecosystems around the globe are under incredible stress due to climate change as well as pollution from some of the common chemicals found in most sunscreens.
Using the latest scientific studies, we’ve outlined #ReefFriendly sunscreen criteria so you can make the best choice for the health of our rivers, lakes, and oceans.
Reef-friendly means environmentally safe, nontoxic, kid-friendly, and human safe. It means safe for people and safe for critical marine organisms like the coral reef. Nobody wants to risk their health or the environment when they want to enjoy a day in the sun, and lucky for us, we don’t have to.
Reef-safe sunscreens allow us to do it all: safely enjoy a sunny day and protect marine life (like coral reefs) from damage.
Why do coral reefs matter?
Of course, it’s important to avoid putting toxic chemicals into our, and our kids’, bodies (and we will come back to that a little later), but those same toxic chemicals are dangerous to humans when they make their way to the coral reefs as well.
So what are coral reefs and why are they so important?
Coral reefs are the oldest living structures in the world. The largest, the Great Barrier Reef, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. But coral isn't just a pretty face. Coral reefs are crucial to bio-marine existence as we know it.
When seeking to understand the health of our oceans, coral reefs are a great place to start. Coral reefs are an “indicator species” that reflect distress occurring within their environment.
Corals are a particularly sensitive animal that quickly responds to changes in its environment such as water temperature, chemical exposure, and changes in light.
Yes, coral is an animal! (And humans are animals...hmmm...).
Each coral polyp attaches to a hard surface where it lives, and often that hard surface is another coral polyps. Over time, this pattern forms the reefs we see. And we can see them from pretty far away — the Great Barrier Reef is visible from space!
In addition to revealing information about the general state of our oceans, coral reefs play a disproportionately critical role in the ocean ecosystem on their own. Although coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, they support more than 25% of all marine life. They are believed to be the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world — even more than the tropical rainforest.
Why is that important?
For many reasons. But to start, it means that coral reef destruction has devastating impacts, affecting more than just the marine life it hosts. It also affects animals higher up the food chain that feed on coral reef tenants.
Coral reefs feed humans too. Reefs support billions of dollars of the international economy. They are central to entire tourism industries where visitors want to snorkel, scuba dive, and fish. In Maui, for example, reefs contribute $34 million in gross sales to the local economy. Coral reefs also provide employment for fishermen who get their products from the complex ecosystem coral reefs sustain. How could fisheries survive without the coral reefs that support over a quarter of marine life?
But wait, there’s more!
In addition to being so beautiful that people travel across the world to explore them, and serving as an ocean thermometer, and supporting a substantial portion of ocean life, and supporting entire economies... coral reefs also save human lives!
Coral reefs protect our coastlines and the people who live near them from natural disasters and rising sea levels. The reefs forming a natural barrier to waves, floods, and erosion. It’s estimated that coral reefs provide this protection to over 200 million people.
So what’s the issue? Coral Bleaching & Your Health
What is coral bleaching, you may ask? Well, coral bleaching occurs when coral pale from their natural vibrant coloring to dull or even white colors. Corals lose their color when they expel a specific type of organism in response to stress.
Coral needs a few basic things to survive. In addition to salt water and warm water, two of those basic needs are: clear water for sufficient sunlight intake, and clean water to prevent absorption of pollutants and overgrowth of organisms that may shade the coral from incoming light.
Bleached corals are more vulnerable to surrounding factors, less capable of fighting off toxins, and have a harder time adapting to changes in their environment. After enough time, coral is unable to recover from the damage and will die. Ten percent of global reefs have already been irreversibly destroyed. With other factors changing the environment, like warming waters, it’s important to be conscious about our effort to reduce our impact on coral reefs as much as we can.
Chemical sunscreen sprays leave residue on the sand, and wind sweeps it directly into the water. But, even sunscreen cream or sun paste will eventually be washed off, whether that occurs at the beach or in your home. The runoff and sewage brings the chemicals back to the ocean and back into the coral reefs we want to protect.
Effects on Human Health
It’s not just what’s happening outside your body that is concerning. It’s also important to consider what’s happening on the inside.
After you lather yourself head to toe, your skin begins to absorb chemicals from the sunscreen. We know these chemicals are making their way inside because the chemicals can be measured in the body through blood, breast milk, and urine samples. The FDA has found that some of these toxic ingredients enter the bloodstream at levels far beyond what the recommended FDA-established thresholds.
Chemical sunscreens have been found to cause hormone disruptions that shift estrogen levels, affect thyroid function, and create molecules that can cause premature aging (no thanks!). Seeing the effects these chemicals have on other animals, these are definitely not chemicals we want inside human bodies.
This is another reason mineral sunscreens are the safer choice for a day in the sun. Chemical sunscreens soak into your skin, then absorb and reflect UV rays. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, work topically on the skin’s surface, acting as a repellant and physical barrier to the sun’s rays. This means you’re getting the protection you want from sun damage and the dangers of skin cancer without having to also expose your body to dangerous chemicals on the inside. It’s a win-win-win.
Making #ReefSafe & #ReefFriendly Moves
Safe reef initiatives have a long history starting in the 1970s, when Great Barrier Reef mining was ended through creating the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park. This national park service was created to advise on the best and safest use of Australia’s treasured Barrier Reef. At the time, concern was focused on external environmental factors from overfishing, coral predators, and coastal pollution.
Major breakthroughs have already taken place in the fight for reef safe sunscreen. First, in July 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing the harmful ingredients octinoxate and oxybenzone.
In August, The Republic of Palau, known for its beautiful marine environment and ocean-dependent economy, followed Hawaiian legislature and created the Responsible Tourism Education Act. The Act states, “No reef-toxic sunscreen shall be manufactured or imported for sale in the Republic after the effective date of this Act. No reef-toxic sunscreen shall be sold in the Republic after January 2, 2020.” The Palau bill bans also bans 10 other toxic chemicals found in sunscreens like octocrylene, 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor, and methyl paraben.
Riding this historic movement, Key West, Florida took note of the research reporting that between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen, concentrated in tourist locations were finding their way into the coral reefs. The New York Times reported on the progress explaining that Key West, which has the third largest barrier reef, voted to ban the sale of sunscreen with the toxicates oxybenzone and octinoxate. Non-biodegradable sunscreens have also been banned in some parts of Mexico.
So, What Makes a Sunscreen Reef-Safe?
If you aren’t sure whether an ingredient in your sunscreen is safe for you and your family, you can use this tool to double check. There are some very common toxic ingredients that you will likely run into with chemical sunscreens that you can keep an eye out for. Two of the most common of these toxic ingredients are oxybenzone and octinoxate.
The Haereticus Environmental Laboratory has put the following ingredients are on “HEL List:” a list of chemicals known to pollute the ocean and your body—definitely not #ReefFriendly:
1. “The Awful Eight”
- PABA (Aminobenzoic Acid)
2. Preservatives & Additives
- Methyl Paraben
- Ethyl Paraben
- Propyl Paraben
- Butyl Paraben
- Benzyl Paraben
- Microbeads (plastic)
Safe ingredients? Zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, and “non-nano” ingredients.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are mineral-based sunscreen active ingredients, and their microscopic particles are not linked to reef destruction. The non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide particles are big enough that coral won’t absorb them.
But is it REALLY reef-safe?
“Reef-safe” has become a catchphrase that may not always be accurate, whether a product claims to be organic sunscreen or biodegradable sunscreen. So how can you tell if sunscreen really is #ReefFriendly?
There are a couple steps you can take to make sure:
1. Read the sunscreen ingredients!
Look at the container and check the ingredients against the lists above. The only way to be sure it is not a chemical sunscreen, contaminating the ocean and your body is to familiarize yourself with the names of the chemicals you want to avoid, and avoid them!
2. Check for verification
We want the real deal. Products should be able to verify they are reef friendly through third-party testing. Full transparency is key!
3. Triple Check
It isn’t difficult to read through the ingredients if there are only a few ingredients in the sunscreen. But if you’ve got a long list of unfamiliar words in front of you, and you are still feeling suspicious, check an ingredient here to find out if it is reef friendly!
How YOU Can Help Us Be #ReefFriendly
Conscious purchasing goes a long way. Perhaps sunscreen ingredients aren’t the first thing on your mind as you head to the Caribbean for vacation, but minimizing the toxicity we contribute to the ocean is a critical step in keeping our reefs healthy. Coral isn’t asking you to commit to a life in long sleeve rash guards or sacrifice sun protection for its sake (it would never do that). Non-nano-particle zinc oxide (which, as you know, is safe for coral) offers the most effective UVA/UVB broad spectrum sun protection in the world acting as a “physical sunscreen,” one that physically blocks the sun from your skin from the surface.
When you are deciding on a sunscreen product, look for an option that is MORE than just oxybenzone free. While the best reef-safe sunscreens are, they are also free of the other ingredients on the no-fly list).
These #ReefFriendly sunscreens provide as strong protection as any: guard yourself with SPF 30 or take it to the next level with SPF 50+. There is safe sunscreen for when you need sport sunscreen and water resistant spray on for the kids.
In fact, this sunscreen can be even more accommodating. You can find sunscreen sticks with chamomile for sensitive skin, and you can even find tinted mineral sunscreen butter that will keep you and the ocean healthy and fresh.
We want your help — let's shake up the sunscreen industry.
Join surfers, kayakers, canoers, explorers, divers, swimmers, snorkelers, watermen, waterwomen, conservationists, and ocean lovers in enjoying our ocean and making sure we minimize our role in destroying coral reef.
Make the choice to protect the ocean from toxic chemicals when you decide to protect yourself from the sun. Tag us when you’re being #ReefFriendly and spread the word that choosing reef safe sunscreen makes a huge difference.
Take the Reef Friendly Pledge and join us in commitment to use #ReefFriendly sunscreens whenever possible. Whether you look at Reef Safe from the long lens of saving the planet or from the near and dear perspective of protecting your little baby’s nose from a sunburn, it’s ALL GOOD!