What Makes a Sunscreen Reef Safe?

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The science community, in recent years, has begun researching the ingredients found in sunscreens and their impact on coral reefs. The findings of this research has prompted places like Hawaii and Key West in Florida to ban the sale and use of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. 

Sunscreens are not alone in posing a threat to the oceans coral reefs; scientists also point to issues like climate change, pollution and overfishing for their contribution to the problem. The risk posed from the chemicals found in sunscreen has triggered manufactures to develop and produce “reef-safe” formulas as an alternative.

So, the question is, what makes a sunscreen reef safe? The following information provides a closer look into this issue.

Sunscreen’s Impact on the Environment

Although there is debate among the science community, there is little disagreement that further study, consideration and discussions need to be ongoing around this issue. With this understanding, let's look further into the problems being raised with sunscreen and its effect on the coral reefs.  

When we head out to the beach to go swimming or to surf, snorkel, scuba dive, skimboard or any other of the multitude of growing water sports, the majority of us use some form of sunscreen. The vast majority of sunscreens that are chemical-based, contain the active ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate

These chemicals absorb the sun’s harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, providing a level of protection from getting sunburned or developing skin cancer. The concern however, is that these chemicals contain nanoparticles that negatively impact the growth and reproductive cycles of coral, leading to bleaching.  

Coral bleaching is the whitening of coral resulting from the loss of the coral’s algae. Algae is a food supply for corals due to photosynthesis, providing it with energy to grow and reproduce.  Devoid of this algae, bleaching occurs resulting in reduced growth rates, decreased capacity to reproduce, increased susceptibility to diseases and ultimately causing the reefs to die and erode.    

Coral bleaching is associated with the devastation of coral reefs, which provide support to approximately 25 percent of all marine life in the ocean. The threats to coral and coral reefs include the risks posed by the chemicals in sunscreen, as well as the following causes:

  • Increased seawater temperatures
  • Increased levels of UV radiation
  • Ocean acidification and pollution
  • Increased levels of sediments in seawaters
  • Use of sodium cyanide to catch fish in the coral reefs
  • Overfishing
  • Harvesting to make jewelry and souvenirs
  • Boat groundings
thriving coral reef

“Reef Safe”

A variety of terms are being used by sunscreen manufacturers such as, “Reef Safe”, “Reef Friendly”, “Reef Repair”, or “Coral Safe”, which can make things confusing. The federal government requires sunscreen claims to be “truthful and not misleading”, however, there are only three areas that are strictly regulated: Sun Protection Factor (SPF), Broad-spectrum, and Water Resistant.  

So, sunscreen’s labeled “Reef Safe” or any of the other terms, do not ensure the manufactures have tested and/or can demonstrate that their products will not harm marine life. Generally these terms are used to identify sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate, the two most common UV-blocking chemicals found in sunscreens and determined to cause coral bleaching.  

The alternative to trusting the manufactures advertising is to review the product label for the list of ingredients, thus avoiding these two chemicals. As beaches, at certain times of the year, can be populated with several thousands of people, even relatively safe sunscreens, based on the large volumes, can cause environmental issues.  

To assist in easing some of the confusion and to provide you with information you can use in choosing a sunscreen product, let's look at what you should know.  

woman reading sunscreen ingredients

Sunscreen Checklist

The two ingredients found in sunscreen, oxybenzone and octinoxate, have been associated with contributing to coral bleaching. When coral bleaches, it is not necessarily dead, but instead is experiencing significant stress and increasing the potential for the coral reef to erode and die.  

The National Parks Services have expressed the following concerns regarding coral reefs:

  • Over 60 percent of the world’s coral reefs are at risk from a variety of sources including pollution.
  • The restricted substances, oxybenzone and octinoxate, are seen as one of the contributing factors in the destruction of the coral reef.
  • Estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter reef areas annually.
  • The sunscreen is concentrated in popular beach and tourist areas.
  • Estimated that 90 percent of snorkeling and diving tourism is concentrated in about 10 percent of the world’s reefs.

Choosing the right sunscreen is important not only to protect you and your family from the sun’s harmful rays and the potential for sunburn and/or skin cancer, but also to protect and preserve our oceans and marine life.  Attempting to find a sunscreen that is both effective in blocking harmful UV rays, as well as being safe for the ocean’s reef system can be challenging.  

To assist you in your search for the appropriate sunscreen to protect your skin and the reefs, know your label and use the following checklist and guidelines:

  • Do not purchase sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.  These chemicals have been banned in places like Hawaii and the Florida Keys, as they are believed to cause coral bleaching.
  • In addition to oxybenzone and octinoxate the following list of chemicals should be avoided when purchasing a sunscreen: Octocrylene, 4-methylbenzylidene, PABA, Parabens, Triclosan and any nanoparticles.
  • Avoid sunscreens with high levels of titanium dioxide, as it’s known to form hydrogen peroxide in warmer waters, which can be harmful to aquatic life. Additionally, this chemical is not biodegradable.
  • Another product(s) to avoid that is harmful to marine life is petroleum and/or mineral oil.  Mineral oil is a colorless and odorless oil that is a by-product of petroleum, often used in lotions, creams, ointments and cosmetics.  
  • A simple rule of thumb is that the less ingredients or simpler the formula, the more likely it's a quality product. 
  • Lean towards using lotions or creams rather than spray-on products.  Sprays not only go on your skin but end up on the beach.  As the tides come in the chemicals from the spray that ended up on the sand will wash out into the ocean.
child holding sunscreen lotion

Other Things You Can Do

Taking the first step to research, understand and purchase a sunscreen product that will protect you, your family and the coral reefs of the ocean is great, but there are additional measures you can also practice:

  • Limit what you bring into the water.
  • Apply sunscreen prior to entering the water, allowing it to fully absorb and thus minimizing the amount that washes off in the water. Follow the application instructions pertaining to how long to wait before entering the water.
  • Wear UV rated clothing including your swimming suit.
  • Wear protective clothing like a swim shirt or rash guard.  Ideally, it should be long-sleeved, have a UV protection rating of 50 plus, a high or mock neck and a thumbhole to hold the sleeve over the top portion of your hands.
  • Wear hats, a head cover and/or preferably UV protective headgear.
  • Wear sunglasses.
  • Seek shade (umbrella or beach tent) or take a break midday when the sun’s intensity is at a peak (noon to 2:00 pm). Not only is this a good idea to avoid exposing your skin to the most harmful portion of the day but also reduces the amount of sunscreen ending up in the ocean.
  • Wear a water resistant sunscreen, which is more likely to stay on your skin.  

By embracing a more environmentally sensitive approach to sun protection, you are safe guarding yourself and your family while also protecting the fragile coral reef ecosystem.  Coral reefs are home to a large and diverse marine life that are both beautiful and critical to our own survival.

Coral Reef Recovery

Once a coral reef is exposed to adverse conditions, that results in bleaching, there are instances where it’s able to recover.  However, the longer the coral is under duress, the greater the potential that it will succumb to disease and become overgrown with algae. If the stresses causing the bleaching are relieved, coral can recover quite quickly and often will regain their beautiful colors. In other instances, where the stresses have endured for longer periods, it can take decades to recover, if it recovers at all.

little girl applying sunscreen

Reef Safe Sunscreen

Sunscreen provides essential protection from the harmful sun rays that cause sunburns and skin cancer.  Abandoning the use of sunscreens, in an effort to protect our coral reefs, should not be a consideration when there are several quality products that can protect both your skin and our reefs.  

The following is a list of products that are considered to be reef safe:

If you are heading out for a day at the beach, the optimal way for protecting yourself and at the same time the environment is to cover your body with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing (suits, rash guard, headgear, etc.). You still will need to use a reef safe sunscreen to cover exposed areas, but you will be using far less than if you only wore a swimsuit.  

For your consideration, we have provided 5 sunscreens that avoid using any environmentally harmful chemicals, have sufficient SPF to avoid sunburn and have received favorable ratings from customers.  

​Final Thoughts

The main chemicals in sunscreens that have been determined to be harmful to coral reefs are oxybenzone and octinoxate. These ingredients convert harmful UV rays into harmless heat on the skin’s surface. However, once these chemicals enter the water, they have the potential for weakening corals’ defense against bleaching.

This issue combined with the oceans acidification, water pollution, rising sea temperatures, and other factors significantly impacts corals ability to successfully reproduce and survive. Without a healthy coral reef, 25 percent of the ocean's marine life that lives and survives in this marine environment will be negatively impacted.

Please do you part to both protect yourself and your family as well as our fragile and precious coral reefs. Let us know in the comments section if you tried one of the listed products or have found other reef safe sunscreens.