What is reef safe sunscreen and how to find it

Sunscreen has become a product of daily use in Hawaiian homes. With growing concerns about skin cancer, it has become a product that you apply before going outside, not just to the beach. The problem is, the substance in sunscreen that blocks UV rays on humans is not so good for the coral reefs in our oceans. In fact, the problem is so pronounced that Hawaii’s Bill SB 1150 seeks to ban oxybenzone from sunscreen used on our beaches to protect the ocean and reefs. Caroline Duell, CEO and Founder of All Good Organic Skin Care, says this bill is great but it’s just the beginning of the awareness we need to protect our ocean. His current visit to Maui is to launch a campaign on reef safe sunscreens and their importance to our ecosystem.

“This trip is really about bringing the community together to understand sunscreen and the detrimental effects on the reef and help educate them,” says Duell. “It’s really about getting a movement for people to commit to stopping the use of chemical sunscreens so that we can have an impact and also to educate people about the legislation. Basically to launch our campaign to educate people about the importance of using and creating reef friendly sunscreen. I think it is really important that this bill be passed. In addition, we need to educate the public more on any additional issues beyond oxybenzone. “

None of those sunscreens at Target were even close to reef safety
Oxybenzone was found to be harmful to reefs in a study published in 2015, but it is still widely used in sunscreens. According to the association Environmental working group (EWG), “Oxybenzone is a common UV filter in sunscreens. It is a hormonal disruptor and an allergen. Sampling done by the Centers for Disease Control and Protection detected it in the urine of 97 percent of Americans. Despite emerging concerns, the sunscreen industry continues to rely heavily on oxybenzone as an active ingredient: it was in 70% of non-mineral sunscreens that we evaluated for this year’s guide. “

Duell says that while Bill focuses on oxybenzone, there are other harmful ingredients as well.

“They want to come out with something that can potentially pass,” says Duell. “Oxybenzone is by far the worst and most insidious offender. I think they wanted to start with just one because it is very well known. It’s about tackling the problem one piece at a time. It is a double-edged sword because we cannot let people think that we have passed this bill and that everything is fine now. There are many other ingredients that are just as damaging. Once we pass this bill, I think awareness will grow on the rest of the ingredients. It will start a very good movement. But this is the beginning, not the end. “

In fact, All Good identifies eight criteria for the recognition of the safety of the reefs in their campaign.

“One of the steps we took was to set a whole series of criteria on what is safe and what is not,” says Duell. “There are basically eight chemicals that have been determined to cause damage to reefs. It is these harmful active ingredients and toxic additives that make it harmful. What is favorable to reefs are essentially non-nanoscale zinc oxides. Nanoparticles are right when you take the mineral which is powdered zinc and literally crush it into microscopic pieces, basically so small that it’s measured in nanometers. The problem for the reef is that the nanoparticles are so small that they can be digested by the reef. The other problem is that they can eventually pass through the skin. These are the reasons to avoid them.

Other sunscreen ingredients like avobenzone, homosalate, octinoxate, octisalate, and octocrylene are of concern. The vitamin A additive, retinyl palmitate, has been shown to be carcinogenic and EWG reports that it is still used in 16% of products surveyed in 2016. All Good also says that additives like paragons, phthalate, triclosan and microbeads are harmful.

So how do you navigate the trade-off between skin protection and reef awareness? The EWG website publishes an annual sun protection report that summarizes the latest research and concerns. You can find their list of concerns about sunscreens, top rated sunscreens, and sunscreen moisturizers at Ewg.org/sunscreen. They also have a utility free app called “Healthy Living” and a research base that can give you ratings and concerns about sunscreen you already have or are considering purchasing. It easily scans barcodes and gives you a breakdown of ingredients and their safety ratings.

In big letters on the EWG sunscreen site it says “sunscreen should be your last resort.” He also recommends bringing your own source of shade for the weather outside. A recent National Parks Service brochure on sunscreen also says to cover yourself with clothes, hats and sunglasses to protect yourself from sunburn. The bottom line for sunscreen is that mineral ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide are recommended because they have not been shown to harm reefs and ocean life. But that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe. The EWG says more research is needed on zinc and titanium dioxides.

This packaging says ecological, but when you read the ingredients, they are always offenders

Spray sunscreens are another concern. As they gain popularity, they pose a risk for the user to inhale harmful chemicals, including reef-safe ingredients like zinc oxide. Scientists just don’t know what’s going on inside the lung tissue when they breathe in these sunscreen mists.

these are not environmentally friendly ingredients like the Alba Botanica packaging claims

After making numerous visits to many different stores to find reef safe sunscreen, I was disappointed to learn that there are some confusing marketing messages out there about what exactly is safe. At Costco, the packaging for Alba Botanica-branded Hawaiian sunscreen says it is “environmentally friendly, biodegradable broad-spectrum protection” and also states that it does not contain oxybenzone or octinoxate and is he has not undergone any animal testing. But reading the ingredient list reveals that it contains avobenzone, homosalate, octocrylene, and octyl salicylate, all of which are not environmentally friendly ingredients. When choosing sunscreen, read the fine print and make sure the ingredient list contains only safe products. At Target, I found only one brand that offered zinc oxide sunscreen after combing two tips of various sunscreens.

In fact, your best bet for finding zinc oxide sunscreens are local surf stores and health food stores. At Hawaiian Moons, I found a great selection of zinc-based sunscreens, and even locally made sunscreen by Maui Natural Organics. Down to Earth is also a great place to check out (they also have sunscreen talks with Caroline Duell). I have also found zinc oxide sunscreens that have been rated highly by EWG at Second Wind, High Tech, and Adventure Sports Maui.

All Good will be associated with the Hawaii Green Party on a Sunscreen Swap booth at the Haiku Flower Festival this Saturday, April 22 from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. There, you can swap your bad sunscreen for an All Good mineral-based sunscreen at no cost.

For more information and research on sunscreens safe for reefs:

National Park Service Sun Protection Guidelines.




About Chris Stevenson

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