Is Your Sunscreen Actually Reef-Safe?
The real meaning behind labels
There is a lot of confusion in the way products are marketed and labled. While packaging and labeling should educate about a product, marketing strategies are often more focused on sales than providing accurate information. The recent surge of clean products and mineral sunscreens has been accompanied by the labels “reef friendly” and “reef safe.” The truth is neither of these terms are officially regulated. Sunscreen manufacturers are not required to provide evidence that their products won’t harm marine life. Some brands have names or packaging that automatically make you think they must be natural or organic. Anyone can put labels on their products, like “reef friendly,” “reef safe,” and “natural.” These do not guarantee they are not toxic to marine life.
Reef friendly is not all that friendly
Our goal is to be 100% transparent and honest with you.. A lot of big sunscreen brands claim to be “reef friendly.” While these brands avoid the more well known and deeply researched toxic chemicals, (check our last blog post for a refresher), they fall short on truly avoiding all compounds that may potentially be hazardous to our health and our reefs. To be silent on a subject that matters so much to us would make us not much better than those who choose not to look more deeply into the potentially harmful effects of all active chemical ingredients in their products, These three active ingredients avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene are the most common chemicals found in major brands that considers themselves “reef friendly.” Let’s dive into justy how unfriendly these ingredients can be.
“Reef friendly” ingredients to avoid
Avobenzone. Often used in place of oxybenzone (a chemical compound banned in Hawaii that causes devastating damage to corals at extremely low concentrations), it works in a similar manner to oxybenzone and poses similar risks. Avobenzone penetrates the skin and is used to help other chemicals absorb into the skin. When exposed to sunlight, the compound is photodegradable, increasing free radicals in the skin and increasing the risks for skin cancers. Similar destructive damage is done to coral DNA and aquatic life exposed to this chemical.
Homosalate. In one study of 54 mother-child pairs, 85.2% of the breast milk samples contained concentrations of octocrylene and homosalate. Breast milk contamination is not uncommon. This is particularly concerning because homosalate impacts the body’s hormone system’s, particularly the estrogen system. In human breast cancer cells, (which grow and multiply in response to estrogen), homosalate exposure led to 3.5 times more cell growth and multiplication. Sunscreens containing homosalate were also shown to enhance the amount of pesticides absorbed through skin. Hormone disruption and pesticide disruption are also threats to reefs and aquatic organisms who see similar side effects and damage from these compounds.
Octisalate. Suspected to be an environmental toxin by the EWG and shows concerning data gaps ignoring studies that include information on the toxicity of this chemical. Japan has restricted its use due to health concerns associated with immune effects and allergenic effects. The effects of repeated and long-term exposures to single compounds and mixtures of these various compounds is poorly studied and the extent of possible negative effects is a necessary evaluation.
Octocrylene. To date there are only a few studies on octocrylene and its toxicity in aquatic environments. Zebrafish embryos and adult male zebrafish exposed to concentrations of octocrylene in water showed absorption and accumulation of this compound. Analysis revealed the adult zebrafish male exposed to octocrylene showed major impairment in the portion of the brain that regulates developmental processes and impairment in the liver, responsible for the metabolism. More studies are needed to evaluate the full extent of environmental hazard of this compound.
Titanium oxide. Although this compound is generally recognized as a safe mineral ingredient, when the size of titanium dioxide is diminished to a nanoscale; as it often is during the formulation of sunscreen, the properties become significantly different. It can become unstable in water, losing its protective coating and becoming toxic to coral reefs and aquatic life.
Click here for a list of well known sunscreens with this ingredient deck.
Why reef safe matters
An estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the oceans every year. Sticking to tanning instead of swimming will not avoid the damaging effects. The sunscreen that you rinse down the drain when you shower, and pass through your urine when using the bathroom, (these chemicals are absorbed into your skin) will eventually find its way into the ocean. The toxic effects from sunscreen chemicals on developing coral lead to an increased susceptibility to bleaching, DNA damage, abnormal skeleton growth, and gross deformities of baby coral. Once reefs die, they don’t come back. The devastating damage to our oceans doesn’t end with reefs crumbling to dust, but ends up on our plates, too. Chemicals and fragrances accumulate in marine organisms and end up in the seafood we eat.
It’s not only chemical sunscreens that are harmful. As an alternative to sunscreen made with chemicals, mineral sunscreen is often considered a “reef friendly” option (to understand the difference between chemical and mineral sunscreen, check out our last blog post). The most common active ingredients in mineral sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium oxide. While they are better for the marine environment than a chemical formula, there are still risks associated with their use. The size of the minerals used in sunscreen can have an important impact. Mineral sunscreens can contain nano-particles. At this size, these particles are small enough to be absorbed by aquatic life and end up being toxic to ocean species; causing damage and ultimately death. A nanoparticle can enter your bloodstream through the skin, lungs, and digestive system. This can create free radicals’ which cause cell and DNA damage. However, a non-nano particle can’t enter our pores due to its size. This also makes it indigestible to corals, protecting them from the dangers of ingesting nano-sized particles.. “Non-nano” means the particles must be greater than 100 nanometers in size. If a label doesn’t explicitly say “non-nano” then it mostly likely contains nanoparticles that could harm you and the environment.
How you know if a sunscreen is 100% reef safe
Check your labels. Look at the “active ingredients.” As consumers, you have to arm yourselves with the knowledge to set a standard for reef safe. Here is AMAVARA’s standard: Reef safe can ONLY be achieved if non-nano zinc oxide is the ONLY active ingredient. An unfortunate marketing ploy is to showcase zinc oxide on the front product, but when flipped over, you’ll see zinc oxide combined with chemical or other marine toxic ingredients on the back. If you see a list of ingredients full of chemicals you can’t pronounce, it’s most likely bad for you and the environment. The simpler the formula, the better, and it doesn’t get more simple than just one active ingredient.
A future perspective
More studies are needed to evaluate the realistic hazard of commercial sunscreens. In the US, chemicals are generally “innocent until proven guilty.” The reality is the majority of chemicals in use today have not been sufficiently examined for human health toxicity or environmental exposure. This means the weight of responsible marketing and manufacturing falls on business and you as a consumer. A chemical is not “reef friendly” simply because it has not met the low bar set for what is/has been considered an acceptable level of toxicity. We can hold ourselves to a standard but it’s up to our conscious consumers to create the demand. At a local level, encourage your town’s stores to offer a reef safe sunscreen option and discourage the sale of harmful products. Spread awareness about misleading labelling to family, friends, and community members; people appreciate the power of knowledge. AMAVARA is 100% naturally sourced, and non-nano zinc oxide is our ONLY active ingredient (check out the back of our label). We are the only sunscreen that uses such a high concentration of zinc oxide (22.5%) as our only active ingredient. As leaders in reef-safe technology, we urge other companies to follow the standards we have set for ourselves and educate consumer bases. Your well-being is our first priority.