What is reef safe sunscreen? How to protect the ocean and your skin.

As the sun shines brighter and UV exposure increases, you may be considering which sunscreen to use this year. It's important to note that between 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunscreen get released into the ocean annually (Downs et al, 2006). As someone who swims outdoors, you might be worried about the environmental impact of the sunscreen you apply before entering the water.

Sunscreen application on a beach

What is the problem with sunscreen?

Did you know that some ingredients found in sunscreens can harm coral reefs and ocean ecosystems? Chemicals such as oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate have been linked to coral bleaching and the disturbance of marine life. To address this issue, Hawaii passed a law in 2018 that will ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate from 2021. Other places such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Key West Florida, and Palau have also followed suit.

Aside from the harmful chemicals, the size of sunscreen particles is also important to consider. Most sunscreens use particles that are less than 100 nanometres in size to prevent leaving a white sheen on the skin. However, these "nanotised" particles are more harmful to aquatic life and can even enter our bloodstream through the skin. On the other hand, larger "non-nano" particles are safer as they sink to the bottom of the ocean and become sediment, posing less risk to marine life and being too large to penetrate the skin. 

What is reef-safe sunscreen?

You may have heard of "reef-safe" sunscreens, but it's important to note that this term doesn't have a defined meaning. Often, sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate claim to be reef-safe however, these are not the only chemicals that can harm marine life. To ensure a product is truly safe for reefs and marine life, look for products with Protect Land + Sea Certification from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. This non-profit organization in the USA tests products for a list of harmful chemicals, rather than relying on self-certification from companies. The current list of harmful chemicals includes:

  • Any form of microplastic sphere or beads.
  • Any nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Octocrylene
  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Methyl Paraben
  • Ethyl Paraben
  • Propyl Paraben
  • Butyl Paraben
  • Benzyl Paraben
  • Triclosan

 Why is mineral-based sunscreen more eco-friendly?

The primary reason mineral sunscreens are more eco-friendly is due to them being non-nanotized. This means that reef-safe sunscreens are made with larger particles that are less likely to damage marine life or the local ecosystem. 

Mineral-based sunscreens can take a bit of getting used to and some can leave a white sheen on your skin however, newer products on the market have been developed to provide transparent cover such as, Stream2Sea's Every Day Water Resistant Mineral Sunscreen SPF45.

Stream2sea SPF45 reef safe mineral sunscreen

How can I protect my skin and protect the sea?

If you're searching for an eco-friendly sunscreen, keep an eye out for these features:

- Broad-spectrum protection against UVA and UVB rays.

- Water-resistant formula that won't wash off while swimming.

- Avoidance of harmful chemicals, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, and parabens.

- Non-nano particles.

- Use rub-on sunscreen instead of spray to prevent excess product from getting onto the sand and into the ocean.

Finally, you can also protect your skin and avoid unnecessary application of sunscreen by covering up with a hat, long-sleeved swimsuit, or rash vest (with UPF rating). 



We hope that this article has provided you with a better understanding of reef-safe sunscreen and empowered you to make informed decisions on how to care for both your skin and the sea.