Did you know that it’s estimated over 14,000 tons1 of sunscreen enter waterways worldwide every year, both from wastewater runoff and normal sunscreen use.
With this estimation, came a lot of talk and references to reef safe sunscreen, to the point that many cruise liners won’t allow customers to bring sunscreen onboard unless it’s clearly labelled reef safe or reef friendly.
But what is it? Why should you use it? And how do we know it helps the environment?
Let’s start by explaining what the terms mean.
What Does Reef Safe or Friendly Mean? Is There a Difference in the Terms?
The terms "reef safe," "ocean safe," "reef friendly," and "ocean friendly" are frequently used interchangeably. All refer generally to sunscreens that are designed to minimize their environmental impact on coral reefs and marine life.
Reef Safe & Ocean Safe
These terms imply that the sunscreen has been formulated to be safe for coral reefs and ocean life.
Typically, this means that the sunscreens do not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, the two most known chemicals believed to damage coral reefs.
Reef Friendly/Ocean Friendly
These terms also suggest that the sunscreen has been formulated to be non-damaging to coral reefs and ocean life. Some suggest that the term friendly, means that it’s better than reef safe, some suggest that it assumes less responsibility.
However, there really is no regulated distinction between the two terms.
It's important to note that while the terms "reef safe," "ocean safe," "reef friendly," and "ocean friendly" are used commonly, there is no worldwide, national or universal standards for their use, and thereby nothing to verify them.
Really the best way to ensure you are being responsible in this area, is to either check all the ingredients are reef safe (assuming the company discloses them) or find a brand that genuinely cares about the environment.
Why do we need Reef Safe Sunscreen?
There is a lot of talk and reference to reef safe sunscreen, many cruise liners won’t allow customers to bring sunscreen onboard, if it is not clearly labelled reef safe. What damage does sunscreen really do to coral reefs and why is this so important for the environment?
You may have heard of this term before. The simplest explanation of coral bleaching is that when coral reefs expel/lose the symbiotic algae living within or on them. This causes them to turn white and become more susceptible to disease and death. Hence the term ‘bleaching’.
This can have devastating consequences for entire coral reef ecosystems and the marine life that depend on them.
How does this relate to sunscreen? Chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are commonly found in chemical-based sunscreens, have been linked directly to coral bleaching.2
Unfortunately, our coral reefs are not the only ocean life affected. Certain fish, sea turtles and various invertebrates have been shown to be affected as well. Research shows that there can be disruption of hormonal balances, growth impairment and other negative effects on development of the organism.3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11
This one is not as well known. Certain sunscreen ingredients can persist for a very long time in the environment. It should also be noted, much higher concentrations of the chemicals found in sunscreen, were found in shallower swimming areas.3
The hope is that by using reef safe sunscreen, we can protect our marine environments, minimize coral bleaching, and help preserve the biodiversity and beauty of coral reefs. It's a small but significant step we can take to protect these fragile ecosystems and promote sustainable practices.
What research is there?
Given the high-profile nature of the subject, much research has been conducted in this area in the last fifteen years. Here is a sample of some of the more popular research.
A study done in 2008 concluded that sunscreen causes viral infections in coral reefs. The viral infections resulted in coral bleaching, leaving them highly susceptible to death and at the mercy of other environmental factors like rising water temperatures.
Multiple studies in 2013, found that Oxybenzone was directly contributing to the bleaching of coral.
In 2017 the nation of Palau reported on the levels of chemicals in ‘Jellyfish Lake’ and their environmental concerns on the matter. Palau banned the use of many chemical sunscreens shortly after this.
Many other studies have been done, the International Coral Reef Initiatives report released in 2018 offered a comprehensive overview of the research by that point. Most conclude more research is needed.
However, a report from the Netherlands in 2020, showed evidence that stopping the use of chemical sunscreens contributed to improvement in our coral reefs.12
Reef Safe Ingredients
The best way to protect our marine life then, that each one of us can contribute to, is to choose which reef safe sunscreen you use very carefully.
As previously mentioned, there is no regulation on terms like reef safe. You may find some products are labelled reef safe, but you have concerns over ingredients. Here are our recommendations on what to avoid, based on the research we’ve seen up till 2023.
What to Avoid
- Oxybenzone14 15 (benzophenone) & Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate)
- Octocrylene16 (octocrylene)
13 These chemical UV absorbers have all been linked to coral bleaching and damage to our natural ocean life. As active ingredients, you will frequently see these listed on the front. However, it’s normally safer to check the full ingredients list too.
- Cinnamates2 (Octyl methoxycinnamate and Cinoxate)
This is a common UV-B filter that has been shown to be harmful to coral reefs. As an active ingredient, this may be listed on the front. Always check the full ingredients list though.
- Parabens17 (Butylparaben, Methylparaben, Benzyl Paraben, Ethyl Paraben and Propylparaben)
Parabens are frequently used as chemical preservatives and are considered harmful to coral reefs and marine life. These may not show in the active ingredients, so make sure you check the full ingredient list.
- Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)18
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, Triclosan, Homosalate, Octisalate, Butyloctyl salicylic acid
- Exfoliating Beads (any form of microplastic sphere or bead)18
- Nylon Powders (Nylon-6 (polyamide 6), Nylon-10 (polyamide 10), Nylon-11 (polyamide 11), Nylon-12 (polyamide-12), polyester-8, polyester-25, nylon glitters, polyester glitters, HDI/trimethylol hexyllactone crosspolymers, polycarolactones and polyethylene powders or fibers)18
These are all listed on the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory’s (HEL) 2023 updated ‘Protect Land + Sea’ certification list.
The HEL is a non-profit scientific organisation working to conserve wildlife and ecosystems. Their list is updated every year for their certification. So, you can be assured it contains everything in the most up to date research.
A Note on SPF Sprays
19 SPF Sprays have been shown to frequently blow onto the sand and into the water, rather than onto you. This results in higher concentrations of the propellant and the ingredients in the water, rather than on you. For this reason, we find it prudent to recommend the use of a cream or lotion, rather than a SPF Spray.
A Hidden Danger (Nano Particles)
The two generally agreed upon ingredients to use in sunscreen (that protect from UV radiation without impacting the environment) are Titanium dioxide and Zinc Oxide.
Researching the subject, you will probably find many recommendations for both of these ingredients. However, you may have read about research that indicated that titanium dioxide doesn’t cause damage to coral reef’s but zinc oxide does. You might come across studies that compare the two with focus on zinc oxide being deleterious.
It is worthwhile noting that in such studies the research uses nano zinc particles as they are the more commonly used in sunscreens, and nanoparticles have already been shown to be damaging to marine ecosystems20.
Nanoparticles have been shown to be small enough to be ingested by the coral, and thereby cause damage. Micronised particles, on the other hand, are too large for this, and thereby don’t carry this risk.
What Should You Use?
Based on our findings we recommend you choose a natural zinc-based sunscreen, that uses micronised zinc, instead of nano zinc. You can recognise these sunscreens by looking for the words ‘non-nano’ or ‘micronised’.
We do recommend zinc, which has a far longer history of personal care use than titanium. Here are a few more reasons why we recommend zinc.
- Zinc is a natural UV filter
- It’s an essential nutrient in the body.
- Zinc Oxide offers more broad spectrum protection than Titanium Dioxide.
- It’s been used in personal care and baby products for many years without issue.
- In micronised form zinc is considered the safest UV filter by the EWG.
We recommend Soléo Organics natural reef friendly sunscreen. We go into further detail in this later in the article.
Where am I required to Use Reef Safe Sunscreen?
Various chemicals have been banned right across the world. We’ve listed below which countries/states have banned which chemicals, just so you can be sure if holidaying to these areas. However, if you follow our recommendations or just use Soléo Organics sunscreen, you should be fine anyway.
(Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Avobenzone, Octocrylene)
(Oxybenzone, Octyl Methoxycinnamate, Octocrylene, 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor, Triclosan, Methyl paraben, Ethyl paraben, Propyl paraben, Butyl paraben, Benzyl paraben, Phenoxyethanol)
- U.S. Virgin Islands
(Oxybenzone, Octinoxate and Octocrylene)
(Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, 4-Methylbenzylid Camphor, Butylparaben)
- Mexico’s Eco Tourism Reserves
(Oxybenzone, or Octinoxate & Must be Labelled Reef Friendly)
We recommend Soléo Organics natural reef friendly sunscreens. Soléo’s sunscreens are made using only natural ingredients.
They use micronised zinc, are hypoallergenic, suitable even for babies and pregnant women, are eco-friendly, recyclable, and even biodegradable. Most importantly they offer a great level of protection.
If you are swimming, we do recommend the high-performance coconut sunscreen, as this offers a very high level of water resistance. While reef friendly, this does mean that to be ultra safe, less of anything will be released into the water.
Frequently Asked Questions
Do I need reef safe sunscreen if I’m not swimming?
Yes, you do. Unfortunately, much of the runoff into our coral reefs and ocean life comes from wastewater. It is important to choose a reef safe sunscreen, and use it whenever you use sunscreen, not just when you visit the beach or go on holiday.
Is reef safe sunscreen as effective as regular sunscreen?
Yes. There are some myths around this, where people believe that reef safe sunscreen is less effective. It is believed these myths started because it was difficult to find a reef safe sunscreen with an SPF higher than SPF 50.
Unfortunately this is due to a misunderstanding of SPF ratings (see more about spf ratings here) and initial manufacturers avoiding too high an active ingredient content, probably to avoid a white cast being left by the sunscreen (more on that in the below question).
In short, reef safe sunscreen, protects just as effectively as regular sunscreen.
Why does some reef safe sunscreens leave a white cast?
Reef safe sunscreen frequently leaves a white cast because it uses minerals (zinc & titanium) to protect the skin from UV radiation. Unless the sunscreen is very carefully formulated, the high concentration of the minerals (zinc or titanium) can cause it to leave a white cast on the skin.
Soléo Organics natural reef friendly sunscreen avoids this white cast with a very careful formulation created over many years of research and development.
It should be noted though, that some manufacturers use nano particles to overcome this hurdle.
Is Reef Safe Sunscreen Biodegradable?
This varies based on the sunscreen. Some natural sunscreens are biodegradable, some use other ingredients like mineral oil, which can take years to biodegrade. Others are not biodegradable at all.
We recommend looking for a sunscreen labelled ‘all natural’ rather than just ‘natural’. This will ensure it doesn’t use any synthetic ingredients which may not biodegrade.