Did you know that your favorite sunscreen and skincare products can put the world’s coral reefs at risk? Here are the key facts you need to know when choosing a coral reef sunscreen that protects both your skin and the environment.

Reef Safe Sunscreen: What you need to know

Have you decided to plan your next day at the beach? Or maybe you’re going on a beach vacation? There are many things you can take with you for a day in the sun. And one of the most important things on your list is probably sunscreen. But to what extent have you really thought about the effect of sunscreen ingredients on the environment and human health?

With melanoma rates on the rise and skin cancer the most common form of cancer in the United States, it is more important than ever to protect your skin from the sun. Unfortunately, sunscreen advertisements make many vague claims. Worse, many of these claims influence purchasing decisions that contribute to the destruction of coral reefs around the world.

Visiting a coral reef is an extraordinary experience. Whether you paddle or dive, you will be hard pressed to find a more breathtaking view of the water. The vibrant colors of the coral reef and the surrounding wildlife are breathtaking.

Unfortunately, many of these magical waterscapes are being destroyed by pollution. And one of the biggest culprits? Sunscreen.

How sunscreens threaten coral reefs

Here are some recent statistics on sun protection:

So why does it threaten the survival of coral reefs?

In recent years, oxybenzone and octinoxate have been found to be pollutants that are harmful to humans and the environment. These particular ingredients have been linked to various toxic reactions in corals, fish and other marine organisms. These reactions include coral bleaching and DNA damage, as well as growth and skeletal abnormalities.

Coral bleaching is a particular setback because it leaves the coral vulnerable to various infections and limits the amount of vital nutrients it can absorb. This reaction is so dangerous that it is considered a global crisis.

The good news? In some cases, coral reefs are able to recover from fading when conditions permanently normalize. This recovery process can take decades, but it is a beacon of hope for all who love these wonders of nature. We must protect and preserve them. And that process can begin with choosing a reef-safe sunscreen!

In 2018, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxide to protect the marine ecosystem from toxic chemicals. And Key West passed a law banning the sale of these chemical sunscreens to protect the Florida Keys, the world’s third largest coral reef ecosystem.

Beach chairs and umbrella for sun protection

Understanding the labeling of sunscreen products

Unfortunately, many sunscreen products are referred to by different terms, making it extremely difficult for consumers to make an informed purchasing decision.

It is important to understand that the FDA is primarily focused on the following claims:

  • Sun protection factor (SPF)
  • Water resistance
  • Spectrum of protection against ultraviolet (UV) radiation

As noted in Consumer Reports, the use of sunscreens labeled “reef-safe” is not guaranteed to be safe for aquatic ecosystems because there are no standard prescriptions for the use of sunscreens to protect reefs. It is the responsibility of consumers to understand the risks of certain sunscreen ingredients and to keep the protection of our aquatic fauna in mind when purchasing sunscreen products.

How can you reduce your environmental impact the next time you go to your favorite beach?

The best way to protect yourself and the environment is to wear clothing with a UV protection factor (UPF). Why is this? When you use a hat and UPF clothing, you don’t have to apply as much sunscreen. This means that when you swim, you are throwing yourself less into the ocean and having less impact on the surrounding marine life.

Another wise decision you can make is to avoid aerosol formulations. The undeniably convenient formulations of aerosol sunscreens contain microscopic chemical ingredients that are often inhaled when applied. Those same ingredients become airborne and spread through the environment, ultimately causing further contamination.

Ingredients that should – and should not – be in your sunscreen.

The Haereticus Environmental Laboratory has compiled a useful list of common sunscreen and skin care ingredients that it classifies as pollutants. These ingredients pose a serious threat to the health of various bodies of water and surrounding wildlife. Their list includes :

  • Oxybenzone
  • Oxynoxate
  • Any kind of microplastic beads or pearls
  • Any nanoparticles such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (less than 100 Nm).
  • 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Octocrylene
  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Methylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Propylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Benzylparaben
  • Triclosan

It is also recommended not to use sunscreens that contain petrolatum (also called mineral oil) or are rich in titanium dioxide. These mineral ingredients are not biodegradable and threaten the overall health of the surrounding marine life.

Mineral sunscreens with non-nano active ingredients offer a safer option in reef sunscreens. The term “nano” refers to ingredient particles with a diameter greater than 100 nanometers. While traditional sunscreens are absorbed by the skin, nanoparticles are deposited on the surface of the skin and block the sun’s harmful rays. According to the National Park Service, non-anoylated zinc oxide appears to be less harmful to coral reefs and is not associated with coral bleaching.

In the end, look for sunscreens that use zinc oxide without nano-oxides and that allow all harmful chemicals to pass through.

Reef-safe sunscreen

Wondering where to start to find out the key ingredients to look out for when choosing a sunscreen and what not to look out for? Here are some excellent coral reef sunscreen products for you to consider.

Beauty Juice Sport Moisturizing sunscreen SPF 30

This sports waterproof sunscreen is an excellent choice if you are looking for a more durable lotion. This natural, mineral, zinc-free sunscreen combines rich organic jojoba and soothing aloe to protect skin from the sun while exercising outdoors. A little harder to rub out because of its thicker consistency, but it is water-resistant for up to 80 minutes.

Permanent sunscreen in zinc spray SPF 30

There is no denying that the Mineral Sun Spray formula is very practical. With this reef-safe solution, you don’t have to use the harmful chemicals and fragrances normally found in sunscreen sprays. I love that this formula is hydrating and also offers 80 minutes of water and sweat resistance!

Super Shield Sunburn Sport Stick SPF 50

I like to take this handy mineral sunscreen stick with me when I go out with a simple hand clutch because it doesn’t count against my liquid limit! This lightweight and water-resistant formula is based on a nano-oxide of zinc oxide as the main sunscreen. This formula is similar to a sunscreen and moisturizer – it’s made with avocado oil and cocoa seed oil! Perfect if your skin is prone to dryness.

Latest ideas on coral reefs and sunscreens

It is imperative that we all do what we can to protect our coral reefs and marine life. Whether you are traveling to Hawaii or the Florida Keys, the Caribbean or the South Pacific, this information is important no matter what tropical region you are visiting. Armed with this knowledge, you can make an informed decision to purchase a reef-safe sunscreen before you take it on your next beach vacation – to protect yourself and the coral reefs!

What You Need to Know About Reef Safe Sunscreen

Frequently asked questions

How do you know if a sunscreen is safe for reefers?

When buying sunscreen, there are a few important points to consider: No oxybenzone or oxyoxate in the ingredient list. Both chemicals are harmful to corals and can cause discoloration of corals from sunscreen. Their absence indicates that the product is safe for reefs.

Which sunscreen is safe for coral reefs?

Mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide “unquantified” (“unidentified” means the ingredients have a cross section of 100 nanometers or more) are safer for coral reefs than chemical sunscreens (“unidentified” means the ingredients have a cross section of 100 nanometers or more), according to the National Park Service.

Why is sunscreen bad for the reef?

When you swim with sunscreen on, chemicals such as oxybenzone can enter the water where they are absorbed by corals. These substances contain nanoparticles that can interfere with the reproduction and growth cycles of corals, ultimately leading to coral bleaching.

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