Should you use reef-safe sunscreen for your next beach holiday? Plus, where to shop it
A deep dive
You have probably heard of reef-safe sunscreen by now—but is it necessary? Ahead, we investigate.
Our oceans are going through a crisis—according to a 2022 report, more than half of the world’s coral reefs have been estimated to be lost through bleaching as a direct result of climate change and other environmental stressors.
It’s a staggering statistic that is only made more horrifying by the fact that just 1.5ºC of warming could obliterate those that remain. As you probably know, coral reefs are essential to our marine ecosystems as they protect our coastlines from storms and erosion, are home to millions of species of marine life, and support healthy ocean food webs—expectedly, their disappearance would have catastrophic consequences for us and our oceans.
So, what does sunscreen have to do with this? Well, back in 2008, a study on the correlation between sunscreens and coral mortality was published with eye-opening results: it was found that between 6,000 and 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen get transferred from swimmers and snorkellers into coral reefs each year. According to this study, two specific chemical sunscreen filters—namely, oxybenzone and octinoxate—as well as other ingredients like butylparaben, octocrylene, triclosan and 4MBC (aka 4-Methylbenzylidene-camphor aka enzacamene) were directly linked to coral damage at extremely low concentrations.
It sounds bad, but don’t get your swimsuits up in a bunch just yet. While there are studies that suggest that your SPF may be harming coral reefs, the context is a little muddy. Firstly, “extremely low” is relative in these studies—cosmetic chemist and chemistry PhD Dr Michelle Wong of Lab Muffin Beauty Science describes it best: “In the studies, sunscreens were exposed to coral in the parts per million to parts per billion range. And while these sound pretty low, other coral researchers have pointed out that these concentrations are much higher than those found in the vast majority of the environment.”
Secondly, most of the stress on our reefs comes from global warming and pollution rather than some SPF residue that has been diluted by the ocean so much that its quantities are essentially negligible.
Thirdly, the evidence for coral bleaching by sunscreen is extremely flimsy. Coral scientists Carys Mitchelmore and Doug Fenner have stated that they are “perplexed by the misguided distraction that a limited and unreplicated study about one of the sunscreen chemicals is gaining, and frustrated that it’s taking the spotlight off scientifically proven concerns to reef decline.”
Mitchelmore and Fenner continue, stating that “people are being led to believe there is extensive scientific evidence about the impact of oxybenzone on corals, and this is simply not true.”
Coral expert Professor Terry Hughes, the director of the Director of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies has also asserted that “there is actually no direct evidence to demonstrate that bleaching due to global heating is exacerbated by sunscreen pollutants. Similarly, there is no evidence that recovery from thermal bleaching is impaired by sunscreens, or that sunscreens cause coral bleaching in the wild.”
Essentially, if you’re looking for ways to save our coral reefs, switching up the sunscreen you use should not be where you start. That said, there are reasons why you may want to hop on the reef-safe train. In particular, some marine hotspots like Hawaii, parts of Mexico, Key West in the USA, and the archipelago of Palau in the Micronesia region have banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in a bid to better protect our ocean ecosystems.
So, if you’re planning your next beach holiday at those locations anytime soon, it might be worth considering getting a reef-safe formulation. There isn’t a set standard for “reef-safe” but these formulations do follow the guidelines set by Hawaii:
Supergoop! PLAY Everyday Lotion With Sunflower Extract Broad Spectrum Sunscreen SPF 50 PA++++ 532ml, RM336
Alternatively, if you’re still worried about the impact of your sunscreen and you’d just prefer to be cautious rather than careless, we do have a few tips to help you feel better about wearing your SPF (something you should absolutely keep doing):
1) Use water-resistant sunscreens to better prevent the ingredients from washing off your body/face into the water.
2) Better yet, wear clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) or rashguards, wetsuits, and the like to protect your skin from the sun. That way, you can minimise the amount of sunscreen applied to your body.
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