The Ultimate Guide to Reef Safe Sunscreen

Reef-Safe Sunscreen opener

Talks of reef safe sunscreen have been surfacing a lot lately. What is it? Why do we need it? Where can we buy some? This ultimate guide to reef safe sunscreen has everything you need to know.

While the nitty-gritty details of the sunscreen world can get a little chemistry-heavy, the effects of non-reef safe sunscreen can be seen by just about anyone who loves the ocean. I remember when I was little and I’d go snorkeling in Hawaii’s oceans, I’d see some bright spots of coral without even having to go that deep! Now, even when I venture out farther, the coral all seems to be a dull white or pale yellow color. This is the most obvious effect of the chemicals in non-reef safe sunscreen, but that is far from all (although there are also other factors that contribute to this issue).

There is still so much that we don’t know about the consequences of non-reef safe sunscreen. But this guide aims to educate everyone who reads it on the harmful effects of traditional chemical sunscreen, as well as the benefits of reef safe sunscreen.

heart-shaped reef from air

What Is Reef Safe Sunscreen?

For a question that seems so simple, the answer is actually very complex. The terms “reef safe” and “reef friendly” are not universally defined, so there is no clear definition.

While in Hawaii, Key West and Bonaire, two chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, will be banned at the start of 2021, this is not the same around the world. The Virgin Islands has also banned a common sunscreen chemical called octocrylene. Palau has banned TEN different ingredients, including some toxic preservatives, and they currently have the strictest national standard. And still other areas of the world are considering banning other reef- and human-toxic chemicals.

These differing definitions of “reef safe sunscreen” make it clear that, even though a sunscreen may be deemed reef safe by legal guidelines, it likely is not actually reef safe.

To put it simply, here is the definition given by Tatyana Cerullo, the co-founder of Kokua Sun Care, a Hawaii-based reef safe sunscreen brand:

“What is reef safe? To me, it means that no ingredient in that personal care product or sunscreen is harmful to marine life. Not just the active ingredient.”

bottles of chemical sunscreen

Why Are These Chemicals Unsafe?

Chemical sunscreens degrade in UV light and are extremely unstable. If you look at the ingredient list on a chemical sunscreen, it’ll be filled with long, unpronounceable active ingredients. All of those chemicals are mixed together to try to stabilize each other, and, consequently, make a somewhat effective product.

However, what most sunscreen brands don’t tell you is that some of these chemicals, including avobenzone (the still harmful, yet legal replacement for oxybenzone), break down within thirty minutes when in sunlight. Plus, when the chemicals destabilize, they react with other chemicals in the area, including the chlorine in pools. Studies have found that when avobenzone reacts with the chlorine in pools, it actually creates toxic chemicals!

And the Chemicals Aren’t All You Should Avoid…

As if the many chemicals weren’t enough for you to pay attention to, there are also preservatives, including various types of parabens (e.g. ethyl paraben, butyl paraben, benzyl paraben, methyl paraben) and phenoxyethanol, which are also harmful to coral reef systems and humans! As a matter of fact, all of these preservatives have been banned in Palau.

tons of marine life near reef reef-safe sunscreen

What Do These Chemicals and Preservatives Do to Marine Life?

The most widely-known consequence of the chemicals in non-reef safe sunscreen is how it affects the coral reefs. These chemicals harm young, growing coral in particular (coral is actually an animal). It can bleach them, which indicates the coral’s extreme stress, and even kill them!

What most people don’t know is that these same chemicals can have negative effects on other marine life as well! These chemicals mess with the endocrine systems of marine life, which means they mess with the hormone levels of both fish and marine mammals. There have actually been instances where male fish have developed female characteristics, because these chemicals have caused such a drastic hormone imbalance.

NOAA also states that it can have negative effects on several other marine creatures. It can impair the photosynthesis and growth process of green algae plants, cause defects in young mussels, damage the immune and reproductive systems of sea urchins, and even accumulate in the tissues of dolphins. It seems like almost every sea creature has been affected by these sunscreen chemicals!

It is important to note that, while the chemicals and preservatives from chemical sunscreens are particularly bad for marine life, “anything we add to a natural habitat or environment is technically not good,” as Tatyana of Kokua Sun Care states. “Nothing should be going in there in an ideal world. But if we also want to protect our skin, we have to pick what’s healthiest and safest for us and marine life.”

So if you’re looking for an alternative to lessen your sunscreen use in general, consider investing in a rash guard. That won’t add anything to the ocean! That said, there are parts of your body (for example, your face) that is not protected by a rash guard, so reef safe sunscreen is still necessary.

man on boat over thriving reef

What Do These Chemicals and Preservatives Do to Humans?

Most people are so concerned about the reefs (a worthy cause, of course), that they forget to think about the consequences that these chemicals and preservatives may have on humans. After all, some of the effects these chemicals and preservatives have on corals and fish are quite unnerving.

In the past, the FDA approved sixteen different chemicals as “generally recognized safe and effective” for sunscreen. As of February 2019, the FDA has reevaluated their standards and determined that only TWO out of these sixteen chemicals are actually “generally recognized as safe and effective:” zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Because this conclusion would upend the sunscreen industry, the FDA is giving the industry a chance to provide data that would counter this information, although, as of November 2019, that has not yet been done.

While the American Academy of Dermatology still encourages people to wear either traditional sunscreen or non-reef safe sunscreen, a couple of independent studies have found that the chemicals in traditional sunscreens are linked to decreased fertility rates and increased endometriosis rates. And, even if you yourself don’t put on the traditional, chemical-filled sunscreen, if someone in the same pool or at the same beach as you DID use it, then those chemicals can still transfer to you and your body, especially if its in the form of a spray!

The preservatives known as parabens are another problem that we have to address. While the FDA and the CDC have not yet confirmed the negative effects of parabens, other independent studies have found links between parabens and breast cancer and lowered testosterone levels in males.

flat lay of beach essentials reef-safe sunscreen

So If I Can’t Trust “Reef Safe Sunscreen” Labels, What Should I Look For When Purchasing Sunscreen?

There are honestly so many things to look for on sunscreen labels. You want to avoid oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, butyl paraben…the list goes on and on! But rather than asking you to scrutinize each and every sunscreen label, I’ll give you one easy trick: look for sunscreen with a high percentage of non-nano zinc oxide
(18%-25%).

Not only is non-nano zinc a reef safe AND human-safe ingredient, but it is also very expensive. That means if brands are going to use a high percentage of non-nano zinc, they’re probably not going to slack off and use harmful parabens or chemicals.

If you’re looking for a longer list of chemicals and preservatives to avoid (although this is likely not complete), take a look at the following list:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • 4-Methyl-Benzylidene Camphor
  • Triclosan
  • Methyl Paraben
  • Ethyl Paraben
  • Butyl Paraben
  • Benzyl Paraben
  • Phenoxyethanol

Are Reef Safe Sunscreens Effective for All Consumers?

As mentioned previously, the FDA recently found that only two sunscreen ingredients have been generally recognized as safe and effective: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. While titanium dioxide mainly protects from UV-B (the type of UV rays that are mostly responsible for sunburns), it does not protect from UV-A (the type of UV rays that are mostly responsible for aging and skin cancer). Zinc oxide, on the other hand, protects skin from both. And, because the vast majority of reef safe sunscreens use large quantities of zinc oxide, they are effective for all consumers.

So basically, if you want to effectively protect BOTH your skin and the reef (don’t let your health suffer for the reef’s health please!), use sunscreens with high percentages of non-nano zinc oxide (18%-25%).

peach bottle of reef-safe sunscreen on sand near water

Do You Have Any Reef Safe Sunscreen Recommendations?

Why yes, I do! If you’ve been following Borders & Bucket Lists for a while, you probably know that I love supporting some of Hawaii’s fantastic local businesses. This includes an amazing, quality reef safe sunscreen brand, Kokua Sun Care.

Why Should I Choose Kokua Sun Care?

First of all, it’s made of reef safe AND human safe ingredients. Kokua Sun Care has the highest percentage of non-nano zinc on the market (25%), which also means it has the highest SPF of any reef safe zinc-based sunscreen (50 SPF). This high quantity of non-nano zinc makes it a broad spectrum sunscreen, which protects your skin from more of the UV-A spectrum (up to 375 nanometer UV wavelengths) than any other sunscreen ingredient (which is fantastic!). Plus, all of the other ingredients, like macadamia nut oil, noni honey, plumeria extract, and spirulina, are all ingredients that I have heard of before and can pronounce!

Kokua Sun Care is also very water-resistant! That means if you decide to take a dip in the ocean or the pool, your reef safe sunscreen won’t just wash off. And while most reef safe, water-resistant sunscreens are greasy or sticky, Kokua Sun Care spent years developing a formula that applies easily and comfortably.

And as an added bonus, the Kokua Sun Care packaging is 100% recyclable. After all, we don’t just care about the coral bleaching, we also care about reducing the plastic in the ocean right? They are also in the process of changing their packaging to carbon negative sugarcane bio-plastic packaging.

Bottom line: Kokua Sun Care is fantastic. Make sure you add Kokua Sun Care to your Hawaii packing list and your beach packing list.

clear ocean water

Where Can I Buy Reef Safe Sunscreen in Hawaii?

Down to Earth is a great place to buy many brands of reef safe sunscreen in Hawaii. Whole Foods markets across the Hawaiian Islands have recently also started stocking up on reef safe sunscreen brands.

Kokua Sun Care, in particular, can be found in both of those establishments and several stores across Oahu, as well as at Island Naturals on the Big Island, the Grand Hyatt Kauai Spa and Poipu Beach Club on Kauai, and Mana Foods and Down to Earth Maui on Maui. Here is a full list of places where you can buy Kokua Sun Care.

Where Can I Buy of Reef Safe Sunscreen Anywhere?

I understand that it may be more convenient to find a reef safe sunscreen that is close to you. Honestly, the easiest way to get ahold of reef safe sunscreen in my opinion is to purchase it online directly from the company. Then, you can do all your research with just a few clicks of a button, and it’ll show up on your doorstep! Since Kokua Sun Care  is a fantastic reef safe sunscreen brand, it’s only fair that I link to the Kokua Sun Care website here, so you can purchase some reef safe goodies of your own!

It’s important that we make a change to our sunscreen consumption habits, because we don’t yet know the long-term effects of some of these chemicals – and the short-term ones are already pretty scary.

What else would you like to know about reef safe sunscreen? Are the topics that you wished were covered but that I missed? Let me know in the comments!

Want to share this information on reef safe sunscreen? Or just want to remind yourself? Pin this post for later!

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Disclosure: This post was written in partnership with Kokua Sun Care. All opinions are from Borders & Bucket Lists.

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