Why a Reef-safe Sunscreen?
Reef-safe sunscreen has been in the news lately. As you might be aware, this July, the Hawaii legislature passed a bill that will ban the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing the UV-absorbing chemicals OXYBENZONE and OCTINOXATE. In recent scientific studies, these chemicals have been shown to be toxic to coral—particularly juvenile, developing coral larvae. These chemicals have also been shown to intensify the effect of rising ocean temperatures (global warming) which scientists unanimously say is the major cause of coral bleaching. The ban takes effect in 2021.
Is my Sunscreen Banned?
Many popular brands of sunscreen like Banana Boat, Coppertone and Neutrogena contain these chemicals and will not pass as reef-safe sunscreen in Hawaii. As you can imagine, there is plenty of controversy over the ban. For consumers, it means your favorite sunscreen may very likely be on the “banned” list. And since there are an increasing number of marine sanctuaries and diving spots around the world that allow only reef-safe sunscreens, now is a good time for some tips to help you find a reef-safe sunscreen that will protect your family and the environment.
Obviously, to be reef safe, a sunscreen should not contain the aforementioned Oxybenzone or Octinoxate. But it’s not that simple. Although the back label on a bottle of sunscreen will always list the ingredients, not all manufacturers put the “Oxybenzone-Freee” claim in plain sight on the front of the label where it would most help consumers. If you don’t see “Oxybenzone Free” on the front label, you should still check the active ingredients on the back label (usually at the top of the Drug Facts box) to know for sure.
Two Sunscreen Types
In choosing a reef-safe sunscreen, it’s also important to know that there are basically TWO kinds of sunscreen, CHEMICAL and MINERAL. Oxybenzone and Octinoxate are found in chemical sunscreens. Chemical sunscreens work by “absorbing” UV rays and dissipating them as heat. Mineral sunscreens, on the other hand, work as a “blocker” of UV radiation. Mineral sunscreen sits on top of your skin and uses particles of Zinc or Titanium to reflect UV radiation.
Which Should I Choose?
To help you find the reef-friendly sunscreen that will best suit your needs, below are a few additional differences in the two types of sunscreen:
Application—Chemical sunscreens have long been the preferred formula by consumers because they apply easier, and feel better on your skin. Chemical sunscreens actually bond with your upper layer of skin, so they don’t leave the white sheen that a mineral sunscreen does.
Water Resistance—There is not a clear winner in this category. Both types of sunscreen are water resistant up to what it says on the label (typically 80 minutes). However, if you are in and out of the water frequently, the best advice is to reapply at least every two hours, regardless of which type of sunscreen you are wearing.
Cost—Chemical sunscreens are generally less expensive than mineral sunscreen. For brands of sunscreen that offer both mineral and chemical formulas, the mineral option can cost up to twice as much as the same size in the chemical option. Typically, you will pay 20 to 50% more for a mineral-based sunscreen.
Skin Reaction—Because mineral-based sunscreen sits on top of your skin and does not use chemical absorbers, it is less likely to cause skin irritation. For infants and persons with extra-sensitive skin, a mineral sunscreen would be a preferred choice.
Environmental Considerations—There is a great deal of confusion about sunscreens when it comes to the environment. The Hawaii ban involves two common ingredients in chemical sunscreen, Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. There is enough recent good science that shows these ingredients harm coral. But does that mean we should abandon ALL chemical sunscreens? In a word, no. There are those that rail against chemical sunscreens period, which unfortunately adds confusion for the consumer.
Mineral sunscreens sound safe enough, but when used in “nano” (very small) particle form, which many manufacturers do to make their product apply smoother and avoid the goopy white film, they can also pose an environmental problem. Studies have shown that when nanoparticles wash off in sea water, they can react with sunlight to give off hydrogen peroxide which is toxic to phytoplankton (see photo below of a sign posted at a popular diving spot off Maui). According to Craig Downs, Director of Haereticus Laboratory, nanoparticles can also be toxic to many marine species because the mineral particles are so small they can be absorbed into tissue. An example would be fish “inhaling” them through the gills. Currently, there is no regulatory restrictions on nanoparticles, so you have to take a manufacturer at their word that their product does not contain nanoparticles.
Some Reef-safe Advice
After having researched sunscreen and its safety for several years now, here is our recommendation: If you prefer the way a chemical sunscreen feels and performs (which a lot of people do), consider it a reef-friendly choice as long as it is free of Oxybenzone, Octinoxate and Parabens. If you have sensitive skin and cost is not a concern, or you are applying to a very young child, you can go for a mineral sunscreen. Just be sure the mineral sunscreen is NON-Nanoparticle (100 NM or higher).
When shopping for a reef-safe sunscreen, remember to specifically watch primarily for Oxybenzone. More and more manufacturers are noting on the front label that their product is “Oxybenzone Free”. And after reading both the front and back labels you’re still not sure, check for a phone number where you can call the manufacturer directly.
To help get you started in your shopping for a reef-safe sunscreen, here’s a link to Coral Isles Reef-friendly Sunscreen. They offer both a mineral-based, and chemical-based option void of Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, parabens and nano-particles.