Does "Reef-Safe" Sunscreen Actually Protect Our Oceans? We Investigate

If you’ve been growing more environmentally conscious as more studies are being conducted on the effect beauty products have on the environment, then, chances are, you’re rethinking your current sunscreen selection. After all, many popular sunscreen ingredients negatively impact Mother Earth. With that in mind, we’re taking a deep dive into reef-safe sunscreen. Ahead, discover everything there is to know about environmentally-conscious SPF, including whether it’s really necessary.

What Is Reef-Safe Sunscreen?

Also referred to as reef-friendly sunscreen, reef-safe sunscreen is SPF that’s formulated without oxybenzone and octinoxate, two popular ingredients in chemical sunscreens that have been shown to cause coral bleaching and harm marine life in the world’s oceans.

Now that you know what reef-safe sunscreen is not, let’s talk about what it is. As Geraghty points out, reef-friendly SPF is typically formulated with zinc oxide, “a gentle, safe ingredient that offers broad-spectrum protection from ultraviolet light,” she explains. Unlike nano-Zinc oxide, zinc oxide isn’t likely to harm marine life or human cells and organs, making it a healthier sun protection choice. Another ingredient that’s commonly found in reef-safe sunscreen (typically categorized as mineral sunblock) is titanium dioxide. According to the Environmental Working Group’s 2020 Guide to Sunscreens, these two ingredients are the only two UV filters considered truly safe—both for people and the environment—by the FDA.

The Impact of Sunscreen on Coral Reefs

UV filters—such as the aforementioned oxybenzone, octinoxate, benzophenone-1, benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-benzylidene camphor, nano-titanium dioxide, nano-zinc oxide, and octocrylene—can negatively impact the world’s oceans in a number of ways. Not sure how the lotion you apply on your skin could affect creatures in the ocean? According to the National Ocean Service, when we swim or even shower, the sunscreen that’s slathered on our skin can end up in the world’s waterways. While you might think that at that point it’s so diluted that it couldn’t possibly cause a problem, think again. (Not-so-fun fact: The Ocean Foundation reported that “an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen is believed to be deposited in oceans annually with the greatest damage found in popular reef areas such as Hawaii and the Caribbean.”) As the NOS points out, sunscreen chemicals can bleach, deform, and kill coral reefs, impair algae growth and photosynthesis, decrease fertility and reproduction among fish, and cause birth defects among marine life at large.

As grateful as we are for emerging studies on the topic, Geraghty points out that more studies still need to be conducted.

“In the laboratory, certain sunscreen ingredients have been shown to contribute to coral reef bleaching—a sign of damage to reefs, or an unhealthy reef,” she explains. “Other studies that examined the levels of these sunscreen ingredients in the Hawaiian waters showed that the amounts were significantly lower (at least one-thousand-fold lower) than the doses that caused coral damage in the lab.” Point being, there’s still so much to uncover about sunscreen’s effects on coral reefs and marine life at large.

Is Reef-Safe Sunscreen Legitimate?

The biggest debate surrounding reef-safe sunscreen is that there’s not one set definition, as the terms “reef-safe” and “reef-friendly” aren’t regulated—at least not yet; who knows what will happen now that Hawaii’s ban is in place. Nevertheless, the information we do have from recent studies does show that some UV filters are more harmful to coral reefs than others.

“There is growing concern about the impact that humans may have on the environment, and we need additional studies to understand just how much of an impact our personal care products may have on our coral reefs,” Geraghty says.

Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid to Protect the Ocean

Although more studies are being conducted, you may want to start shopping in accordance with Hawaii’s new law. Thankfully, many products are now labeled as “reef-safe” to help make doing so more approachable. That said, since reef- safe sunscreens aren’t regulated, it helps to know which specific ingredients should be avoided (and why). With that in mind, and to help make your sunscreen shopping as simple as possible, below find a comprehensive list of the sunscreen ingredients you should avoid to protect the ocean. After all, even though dermatologists and the science world as a whole are pushing for more studies, what we already know is that coral bleaching is possible, and that’s reason enough to start changing our habits.

(Psst: For the most streamlined sunscreen shopping, head to the EWG’s Guide to Sunscreens. There, you’ll be able to search the SPF you have in mind to uncover how healthy it is for you and the environment. Green is good, yellow is iffy, and red should be avoided if at all possible.)

  • Oxybenzone: A popular UV filter that’s rated as a red 8 on the EWG’s sunscreen scale. It’s been connected not only to coral bleaching but human birth defects, too.
  • Octinoxate: Rated a yellow 5 on the EWG’s sunscreen scale, octinoxate has been shown to affect hormones, reproductive systems, and behavioral alterations in animal studies.
  • Benzophenone-1 and -8: According to CosmeticsInfo.Org, benzophenone is a popular UV filter that’s often found in enamels and nail polishes (which alone makes us want to avoid putting it on our faces). Its purpose is to protect products from deteriorating but in the process it can deteriorate skin and the environment.
  • PABA: While PABA can absorb UVB radiation, Save the Reef says to avoid it at all costs, as it can affect the reefs.
  • 4- Methylbenzylidene Camphor: Also known as Enzacamene, Methylbenzylidene Camphor is a popular UV filter that’s known to cause harm to marine life and coral reefs.
  • 3-Benzylidene Camphor: The Hawaiian National Park Service lists this popular UV filter as an ingredient to avoid at all costs.
  • Nano-Titanium Dioxide: Since it’s a form of approved mineral sunscreen, you might be confused as to why nano-TD made the list. In short, the smaller the particles, the more they’re able to harm the environment, hence why they’re left out of reef-friendly sunscreens.
  • Nano-Zinc Oxide: Like NTD, NZO is a no-go thanks to its ultra-fine nature that’s better able to harm the environment. In short, you always want to opt for non-nano.
  • Octocrylene: The National Ocean Service says to steer clear of this popular UV filter, which can lead to marine harm.

The Takeaway

More studies need to be conducted to offer conclusive evidence surrounding reef- safe sunscreen. That said, although she would still advocate that any sunscreen is better than no sunscreen from a skin health perspective, Rina Allawh, MD, of Schweiger Dermatology Group in King of Prussia, PA, says that it’s important to consider how our actions can impact the world around us. “My recommendation is to opt for a non-nano, mineral-based sunscreen that contains ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide,” she shares.

Beyond ingredients, Geraghty says choosing the right SPF and knowing when to reapply is essential. “Skin cancer is the most common kind of cancer in our country, and we must protect ourselves from the sun and avoid sunburn to keep skin healthy and to reduce the risk of skin cancer,” she says. “No matter our skin type, consistent use of a broad-spectrum, SPF 30+ sunscreen is an important part of keeping our body’s largest organ healthy. For sunscreen to work effectively, we need to apply it liberally, rub it in thoroughly, and reapply it every two hours that we’re remaining outside—sooner if we’ve been swimming or sweating, since water, heat, light, and sweat break down sunscreens more quickly.”

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