What “Reef Safe” and “Ocean Friendly” Really Means

The term “reef safe” seems to be more commonly used, but what does it actually mean? We’ve studied the scientific research out on this topic and have summarized the effect chemical sunscreen has on the ocean and what it really means to be “reef safe”.  

Reef safe and ocean friendly products do not contain toxic chemicals that harm our coral reefs. While the most common chemical associated with coral reef bleaching is oxybenzone, there are many other chemicals that pose as a threat to our ocean and environment. Research from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory has identified other chemicals that are known pollutants to different environments and wildlife. These chemicals harm beaches, oceans, freshwater streams, rivers, corals, fish, birds, sea turtles and marine turtles. The chemicals below were identified as a threat to ecosystem health: 

  • 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

Not only are these harmful to our corals, ocean, and environment but these chemicals have also been found to be consequential to your health. They have been identified as endocrine disruptors meaning they negatively impact your body’s natural hormones. Oxybenzone, for example, has been referred to as synthetic estrogen and has even been found to lower testosterone levels.

Since the skin is a porous organ that absorbs what we put on it, this means that what you put on your skin affects your internal body functions. A recent study published by the Journal of American Medical Association confirmed that four active ingredients commonly found in sunscreens, avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule, were all absorbed into the human subjects bloodstream at levels that exceed the allowed absorption level set by the FDA. And other studies confirm oxybenzone in humans urine within 30 minutes of application.

This also means that you can harm the reefs and ocean when you wear these chemicals even if you’re not going in the water. When you flush the toilet or wash off in the shower, chemicals from the sunscreen enter the sewer and filters to the ocean. Once these chemicals enter the ocean, they have been found to have negative toxicological effects on marine life.  It has been found to contribute to coral reef bleaching, sex changes in fish, inhibits embryonic development in sea urchins, and can cause genetic mutations in mammals. 

With that being said, shop for sunscreen and skincare products that are free from harmful chemicals to avoid harming our bodies and our ocean. Don’t be fooled by the labeling “oxybenzone free” and be sure to check for other toxic ingredients. It’s easiest to start by looking at the active ingredients; check to see if they have oxybenzone, octocrylene, oxinate, avobenzone, homosalate, etc. If they do, skip them and opt for zinc oxide or titanium dioxide based products and make sure it’s PABA and paraben free as well.

By choosing reef safe sunscreen you are saying YES to a healthy body and healthy ocean. Together, we can protect our skin while we protect the ocean.  

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