A decade ago, scientists began studying the possible effects of chemical sunscreens on coral reefs. This led to increasing research and regions like Hawaii and the Virgin Islands banning sunscreens that were deemed unsafe for coral reefs. But since the term “reef safe” isn’t yet regulated, many companies are using the term without explaining what makes it reef safe. We’re going to explore a few of the most commonly asked questions surrounding reef safe sunscreen to clear up some of the confusion:
Why is reef safe sunscreen important?
There have been five mass extinctions on earth and each one has been preceded by the death of coral reefs. In the last 30 years, 30% of the world's coral reefs have died and scientists are predicting they'll be gone in 27 years if we continue to burn fossil fuels and produce plastic at the same rates. While warming temperatures are the main cause of coral bleaching, other factors like micro-plastics and toxic chemical runoff from sunscreen or household products only add to the stress.
Is reef safe sunscreen a real thing?
Scientists have not yet given a clear definition of what deems a sunscreen "reef safe." However a decades worth of studies did find that baby coral exposed to oxybenzone and octinoxate showed signs of stress including coral bleaching. This leaves reefs vulnerable to infection and less likely to survive. Since this study came out, sunscreen brands free of these two filters began using the term reef safe in their marketing. But oxybenzone and octinoxate aren’t the only two sunscreen chemicals considered harmful to reefs according to preliminary research and scientists at Environmental Sciences Europe recommend taking a "risk based approach," i.e. avoiding suspect chemicals and using other methods of sun protection in conjunction with sunscreen.
“Oxybenzone, which is just one of the sunscreen contaminants that has a major toxicological effect on plants and algae,” says Craig Downs, PhD, executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. Downs also studied another chemical, Octocrylene and found “it is bad for fish, corals and other invertebrates.
There's some skepticism due to the fact that these studies exposed corals to higher levels of chemicals than would occur in the oceans, even in areas popular with a high density of swimmers. But “that’s not to say that lower concentrations have no effect,” says Timothy Bargar, PhD, an ecotoxicologist at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Wetland and Aquatic Research Center. “There may be harmful effects from chronic exposure at lower levels.”
Most experts believe there’s still grey area in the realm of reef safe sunscreen that needs clarifying through further study. Saying all that, while we wait for science to gather more data, the solution isn’t to ignore the potential harms to our oceans or skip wearing sunscreen. The first thing we can do is realise that sun protection includes the whole package — wearing long sleeve clothes, seeking shade and wearing a hat and sunglasses. Another solution in the meantime, is practicing caution by avoiding chemical filters until there are more definitive studies that clarify their impact not only on the health of the reefs, but our health as well.
Are chemical sunscreens bad for our skin?
Aside from just corals, there are six chemicals including octocrylene, homosalate, octinoxate, avobenzone, oxybenzone and octisalate that the FDA are currently reviewing for safety, because they absorb into the skin at higher levels than is considered safe. The only sunscreen filters currently considered “safe and effective” by the FDA are physical filters that sit on the surface of the skin rather than being absorbed into it. There are only two physical filters otherwise known as “mineral filters” and these are zinc and titanium dioxide.
Do you only need to use reef safe sunscreen while swimming in the ocean?
14,000 tonnes of sunscreen wash off our skin into the oceans each year, but sunscreen can enter our oceans by other means too. Washing sunscreen off in the shower or sink can also cause water runoff into our oceans.
Does reef safe sunscreen work?
Yes, reef safe sunscreens are physical sunscreens and these leave a layer on top of the skin, naturally providing broad spectrum protection from UVA, UVB rays and even blue light. Zinc is a notoriously chalky and greasy ingredient, which in the past has made wearing mineral based sunscreens a bit of a compromise. This is why we formulated a non-greasy Zinc based sunscreen formula, to offer an alternative that’s comfortable to wear on your face every day and one that you already know is safe and effective.