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Figuring Out "Reef Safe" Sunscreen

This post was originally published in 2019.

In 2020, when Palau became the first country in the world to ban sunscreens that are harmful to coral reefs (maybe you’ve heard the term, “coral bleaching”*?) people probably thought, uh, where? Palau is scuba diving nirvana. Having visited Palau to dive (here’s my post on it), it made total sense for the Micronesian country of 500 islands to ban certain sunscreens that would damage the marine life that attracts divers. Other dive havens followed - the Caribbean island of Bonaire, Hawaii and Key West. There will probably be more to follow.

*Note: According to NOAA, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration coral bleaching occurs, “[w]hen corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white.” Basically, it’s coral murder.

Since I’m a scuba diver, I like to be conscious of not doing things that harm the very marine life I travel to see. So while planning a dive trip to Fiji (an upcoming post), I tried to find out whether Fiji had banned certain sunscreens. I didn’t see an outright ban, but I came across suggestions for reef safe sunscreens.

My online search also yielded some conflicting information on sunscreens. There were lists of the best reef safe sunscreens and lists of the worst sunscreens for reefs – and some looked like they were on both lists! It all made my head spin. So what are you supposed to do when you want to do what’s best for the reefs while still protecting your skin?

What’s the Difference Between “Reef Safe” and “Reef Friendly”?

Who knows? Those terms are not regulated by law, so sunscreen labels can pretty much say whatever they want. How depressing is that? What I did learn was that “reef-safe” often refers to oxybenzone (more in a minute).

What to Avoid

Well my friends, that list would be long, but here are a couple of the worst...

Oxybenzone and octinoxate – I can’t even pronounce these! These are two ingredients that I found most often at the top of lists of ingredients to avoid. So, if they’re harmful to coral, are they bad for humans, too? Uh, yup. According to the Environmental Working Group EWG, oxybenzone has been found in just about every American’s blood – Holy crap! What’s that mean? Well, some studies show that oxybenzone may have an impact on the endocrine system - you know, the glands in your body that make hormones?). Here’s the link to that super disturbing info.

Oh, and oxtinoxate, well studies have shown that it causes reproductive problems in rats...but it’s still found routinely in makeup...

You should also try to avoid additives and preservatives like parabens and microbeads (that would be plastic to you and me)...

Here’s a link of the “Aweful Eight” ingredients to avoid if you’re looking for a reef friendly sunscreen...

What to Look for Instead

Trying to find a mineral based sunscreen that has zinc oxide and titanium dioxide seems to be “better”. Instead of being absorbed into the skin like “traditional” sunscreen, mineral based sunscreens sit on top of the skin to block the UV rays. So far, these ingredients appear to be less harmful to reefs since they haven’t been linked to coral bleaching, i.e., killing off coral.

What Else Should I Know?

Probably a ton more than I can fit into this post...

First, you still need to check the ingredients to make sure what’s in your sunscreen. Just because it says “reef safe” doesn’t mean it is...

Second, besides avoiding certain ingredients, also look for ingredients that are “non-nano”. Essentially, the particles of the ingredients have to be bigger than 100 nanometers to avoid being ingested by coral. i.e., the stuff has to be too big for the coral to eat.

Finally, you can reduce the amount of sunscreen that you use by covering up – hats, long sleeves, etc. Yeah, that messes up your tan, but it won’t kill the reef either...


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