When I sat down to write this story, I had a list of brands in my head that I *knew* would fit the reef-safe brief.
As it turns out, the whole notion around a sunscreen being safe for use around coral and marine life is actually far more complicated than I initially anticipated.
The scientific exploration into the impacts of cosmetic products on our coral reefs is relatively new, and there is currently no set standard or regulation when it comes to the beauty industry.
Many sunscreen brands have removed two of the most common toxic UV filters octinoxate and oxibenzone from their formulas, marketing their products as reef-friendly, but the list of cosmetic ingredients harmful to marine life is currently 14 strong.
“According to experimentations performed in lab, oxybenzone and octinoxate both induce coral bleaching and DNA damage at concentrations starting from one drop worth in an area the size of six and half Olympic swimming pools,” explains Louise Laing, marine biologist and co-founder of People4Ocean Sun Care, which produces reef-safe sunscreen in collaboration with dermal scientists and marine biologists.
“That means that in highly touristic areas particularly in heavily frequented, closed systems such as coves sunscreen pollution should be addressed as an environmental hazard.”
Hawaii is currently the only territory globally that has banned the use of sunscreens containing octinoxate and oxybenzone to protect its coral reefs.
“Exposure to oxybenzone, octinoxate and other UV-absorbers has an impact on corals and other marine life at the endocrine level. They increase coral sensitivity to bleaching, meaning these corals will suffer more from temperature stress,” says Louise.
“The most concerning effects are on the coral larvae; baby corals swim in shallow ocean currents to find a suitable place to settle, however they can suffer paralysis and death when exposed to sunscreen chemicals.”
Louise describes coral reefs in strife as “oceanic deserts”, as these tropical waters are currently poor in nutrients and plankton, which the fish feed on.
“Coral reefs are for the oceans what rainforests are for the land,” she explains. “Similar to trees in forests, they provide the 3D structure and food to countless species of molluscs, crustaceans, fish and more, that either live within or feed on corals. These in turn constitute the diet for bigger fish, and so on. Coral reefs are the foundation of an entire ecosystem. In other words, without corals the reef ecosystem collapses.”
For a sunscreen to truly be considered safe for our oceans, Louise says it shouldn’t contain any ingredients that have been shown to be toxic to marine life. This includes other commonly used UV filters such as octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone.
These ingredients can be found on what's called the HEL List, a list of chemicals that are known pollutants posing a threat to ecosystem health. The Haereticus Environmental Laboratory regularly reviews its list of cosmetic pollutants, which currently sits at 14 ingredients.
“While testing the impacts of sunscreens on the marine environment is very difficult one, because most sunscreens do not mix well with water, and two, because there are thousands of species we could test on there is science-backed data on the toxicity of the most commonly used UV-filters,” says Louise.
“To be reef-friendly, it is important brands ensure their formulations exclude ingredients that have been studied for their toxicity on marine species.”
Mineral UV filters, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are currently the safest known ways to block ultra-violet rays from the skin without negatively impacting on the reef structure.
Unlike chemical filters such as oxybenzone and octinoxate which absorb UV rays into the skin like a sponge, zinc and titanium dioxide provide a reflective barrier against UVA and UVB rays to repel them from the skin instead, like a mirror or shield. This also makes them well-tolerated for those with sensitive skin and for children too.
The HEL List specifies that for zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to be considered safe for marine life, they must be non-nanoparticles, which are larger than nanoparticles and therefore not easily digested by wildlife.
While choosing a sunscreen devoid of oxybenzone and octinoxate is a great place to start, to be truly reef friendly, taking a good hard look at the ingredients is required.
These five sunscreens are formulated without any ingredients currently featured on the HEL List.