How To Tell Which Sunscreen Is Reef Safe (And Which Isn't)

The implementation of Hawaii's laws on sunscreens with damaging chemicals on January 1st this year got us (and our audience) thinking - which sunscreen is safe to use on our skin and safe for our coral reefs and marine life?

Hawaii, along with the Virgin Islands, Florida, Bonaire, Palau, Aruba and Key West have all passed laws enforcing a ban on sunscreens containing certain chemicals (most commonly oxybenzone and octinoxate) to protect their reefs.

What's the problem with some sunscreens?

Up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen is estimated to wash into coral reefs around the globe each year and most of this is concentrated in areas with high tourism and gentle currents.

Don't worry, we don't have to stop wearing sunscreen (always stay sun safe!), however certain chemicals found in some sunscreens can seep into and be ingested by coral, disrupting reproduction and growth cycles and further impacting coral bleaching. There are also concerns for accumulation of these chemicals in the tissues of dolphins, and its effects on the reproductive capabilities of fish.

Enter 'reef-safe' sunscreen…

In response to these concerns and impacts on coral reefs, the market for reef-safe sunscreen products has grown massively! This is great news for us and the reef, but when I started researching my best sunscreen option I discovered that being 'reef-safe' is not as straightforward as it sounds.

Some sunscreen makers don't use oxybenzone or octinoxate, and label their sunscreen 'reef safe'. Unfortunately, oxybenzone and octinoxate are not the only ingredients damaging to marine life. Other commonly used harmful sunscreen ingredients include octocrylene, homosalate, and octisalate, cinnamates and parabens. The reef safe label is certainly no guarantee that a product will be harmless to the marine environment, especially as there is no regulated standard for what counts as a reef-safe sunscreen.

What is the safest sunscreen option for our coral reefs?

Well, this turns out to be a difficult question to answer. Generally, mineral sunscreens with 'non-nanotised' zinc oxide or titanium dioxide are regarded as safer for coral reefs. Whilst not completely reef-safe, these are natural mineral ingredients which most sources claim are not as harmful to coral. 'Non-nanotised' is important to note because this means the sunscreen does not contain nano-particles and is therefore too large to be ingested by the coral.

However, this blog by Ethique throws a spanner in the works of this argument. Using newly published research by Cinzia Corinaldesi and her team, the blog claims uncoated zinc oxide has a severe and rapid bleaching effect on coral. Uncoated zinc is not coated in a synthetic substance and is the closest to that found in nature, meaning it is used by organic, natural brands. The study says the chemical compounds in zinc oxide disrupt the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae by killing or forcing the algae to abandon the coral they are providing energy to. Coral cannot photosynthesise or live long-term without algae, and so their colour disappears. The Ethique blog says titanium dioxide on the other hand appears to have almost no effect on the coral.

"So while zinc sunscreens are often better tolerated by those with sensitive skin, allergies or conditions like rosacea and eczema, they're no more reef-safe than any others. In fact, in some circumstances, zinc-based sunscreens can prove to be even worse as the bleaching was so severe and the concentrations of zinc in sunscreen needs to be significantly higher than a chemical sunscreen…Check your sunblock ingredients. Even if the label says 'reef safe', read the ingredients. If they include zinc, don't buy it… Use a titanium dioxide-based sunscreen."

Obviously, this is confusing to the consumer. Many sources say mineral-based zinc oxide sunscreens are less harmful to corals and are not linked to coral bleaching. But another source is here to say zinc oxide may actually be even worse than chemical sunscreens. And a major problem I have faced is finding a sunscreen that is titanium based, and doesn't contain zinc!

What is the answer here?

There is no clear-cut answer to this complex issue, especially as the science, standards and regulations are still so unclear.

There are a few steps we can take to truly minimise the effect of our sun-safety on the marine environment

  • Check sunblock ingredients and as far as the research goes so far, look for mineral sunscreens made from titanium dioxide if possible, or zinc oxide if not, that do not contain nanoparticles – look for those labelled 'non-nano'.
  • Go non-toxic, paraben free and organic if possible!
  • Look for sunscreen labelled as 'water resistant', it will be more likely to stick to your skin and not wash off in the water.
  • Wait at least 10 minutes to let your skin absorb the sunscreen before going in the water and risking washing it all off.
  • Use rub-on lotions rather than sprays as these are less likely to be washed into the ocean.
  • Minimise your need for sunscreen by covering up as much as possible.
  • Avoid popular areas so there is less concentration of these compounds.

And avoid

  • Anything containing octinoxate (also known as octyl methoxycinnamate) and oxybenzone(also known as benzophenone-3) as both of these UV-blocking chemicals are proven to harm coral and marine life .
  • Cinnamates and Parabens as they are also proven to negatively affect corals.
  • Sunscreens with a long list of chemicals.

So … What sunscreen should I be buying?

Despite all the contested research and information out there, sunscreen is a necessity and we must all be wearing it to protect our skin from harmful UV rays. There are other weapons against sun damage like shade and covering up with the right choice of clothing. Thinking carefully about our sunscreen is a change we can all make - but it is truly difficult without the clear answer out there.

From my research, these are some sunscreens I have found which appear to be from ethical and responsible brands. All do contain zinc oxide as the active ingredient but like I said before, I have been unsuccessful in finding a titanium dioxide based sunscreen free from zinc oxide, so please let me know if you come across one! And of course, always do your own research!

People of the Earth Sun butter

This sunscreen is a fair trade, organic, mineral-based and nutrient dense sunbutter with 'ecoCert Zinc Oxide'. I contacted People of the Earth to find out what exactly this term means and they said that ecocert is a certification body that reassures consumers that products have been manufactured to meet standards of sustainability and environmental practices.

On their Ethics & Earth page they say:

"Our Zinc oxide is Australian sourced and Eco-certified. This choice was driven by what we would conscionably apply everyday to our own children. We spent a lot of time researching options for broad spectrum UV protection and learnt that Zinc oxide is well and truly the safest choice."

In other positives, their packaging is recyclable and compostable, they select low-impact ingredients and are plastic free. Read our review of the sun butter here.

Similar brands which are natural, organic, mineral-based sunscreen brands who take active steps to protect the marine environment include:

And there are many many more on the market!

So despite the confusion on which chemicals and minerals are reef-safe or not, all we can do as conscious consumers is stay up to date with the evolving research, information and products to best protect our skin and the ocean!

Written by Grace Robinson-Tagg

Grace Robinson-Tagg is a final year university student who is passionate about sustainability, climate action and environmental justice. She also loves music, the beach and watching vegan cooking videos. She is currently interning with 1 Million Women.

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Header photo by LI FEI on Unsplash

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