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Are Reef-Safe Sunscreens Really Coral-Friendly?

Check out these truly harmless options.

The first rule about buying “reef-safe” sunscreens is to ignore any labelling claims (including logos) such as “marine-safe”, “marine-friendly” and “coral-reef safe”. Why? Because there is no agreed definition on what coral reef-safe sunscreens are. In fact, less than 10 countries have taken any action in protecting coral reefs from controversial sunscreen ingredients, and less-than-scrupulous manufacturers use such labels as vacuous marketing terms as there is no law preventing them from doing otherwise. 

What Are Coral Reefs?

Corals are living organisms that join each other to form coral reefs that can stretch hundreds of miles (think: the Great Barrier Reef in Australia). They have also often been described as the “rainforests of the seas”. What coral reefs contribute to our ecosystem and economy is hard to appreciate. The Environmental Protection Agency (an American government agency) estimates that coral reefs contribute to at least 25% of all marine life. These delicate ecosystems are vital to the survival of at least half a billion people globally through food, coastal protection, and supporting local economies (through fishing and tourism). 

Modern-Day Threats to Coral Reefs

It’s unsurprising that coral reef sites (such as in Australia or Hawaii) are also very popular tourist destinations. However, there are several threats to coral reefs including pollution, rising ocean temperatures (via global warming), and the acidification of oceans. Corals derive their beautiful colour from algae that they hold and, when stressed, they expel their algae. This leads to coral bleaching, which can kill them.  

Coral Reefs and Your Sunscreen

Sunscreens contain ingredients called UV filters that are designed to filter out specific UV rays to prevent the skin from getting affected by some of the damaging effects of these rays. In most countries, only specific ingredients are permitted as filters. The most controversial filters are:

  • Oxybenzone (or Benzophenone-3) 
  • Octinoxate (or Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate)
  • Octocrylene 
  • Avobenzone (or Butyl Methoxydibenzoylmethane)

Hawaii specifically bans all four ingredients. A 2015 study by a group of scientists, including a US government body and Dr Downs of Haereticus Lab (HEL), found that Oxybenzone was highly toxic to juvenile corals in four ways:

  • Inducing coral bleaching (which can lead to their death) 
  • Damaging DNA (which can prevent them from reproducing)
  • Acting as an endocrine disruptor 
  • Causing juvenile coral to become deformed

Octinoxate pretty much has the same effect. Avobenzone and Octocrylene were only recently banned by Hawaii (with final measures coming in 2023) and the state government notes that these chemicals can not only affect corals, but also disrupt human hormones. Octocrylene can also degrade into a carcinogen.

Other Ingredients You Should Look for in Sunscreens

The HEL laboratory lists out 11 ingredients that it suggests you look for in sunscreens and other personal care products. The most relevant are:

  • Parabens
  • Oxybenzone
  • Nano Zinc
  • Titanium Dioxide

Note that ingredients such as Parabenzoic Acid and Methylbenzylidene Camphor that are listed are not found in most sunscreens anyway. Both Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide are commonly referred to as “mineral” sunscreens in the USA. Mineral sunscreens tend to sit on top of the skin and leave a not-so-flattering white cast. Nano or micro-sized Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide sunscreens have smaller particle sizes and, therefore, do not leave a white cast and are increasing in popularity. A US government study indicates that, at high concentrations, they can be damaging to aquatic life – not just corals. But further research needs to be carried out to confirm the specific impact on corals. Specifically, Nano Zinc Oxide – also called Coated Zinc Oxide – can accelerate coral bleaching. 

Where Does That Leave Us?

Not many countries ban sunscreen ingredients, and most cannot police every sunscreen bottle that tourists bring into the country. Therefore, it really is up to you and me to do the responsible thing. That means opting for non-Nano Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide sunscreens.

Which Sunscreens Should You Use?

My primary criterion for selecting a sun cream is how harmless it is for corals and marine life. I’ve gone through each ingredient label and personally tried products, arriving at these top three sunscreens: 

1. Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30, REN CLEAN SKINCARE

This is a 22% Zinc Oxide sunscreen and, while it is not cheap at a price tag of AED 120, it comes with the benefit of blending in without leaving a white cast and not smelling like chalk.

2. SPF30 Sunscreen 100% Mineral Uv Filters, THE INKEY LIST

When this sunscreen first came out, the brand touted it as being the price of a coffee. I find that to be quite a disservice to this decent tinted sunscreen, with the only caveat being that it smells like chalk.

3.  Mineral Uv Filters SPF30 With Antioxidants, THE ORDINARY

For a normal Zinc Oxide sunscreen, this is of excellent value. My only issue with it is that you have to double cleanse because once it’s on, it really does not want to be removed!   

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