Education, Sustainability, Wellness / Self-Care

Does reef-safe SPF actually help Climate Change?

Could it be a marketing stunt?

words by: Natasha Marsh
Jul 31, 2022

You might not think about coral reefs when you are purchasing sunscreen at your local drugstore, but it’s high time that you should. Rather than buying an option for its price convenience, think about the role that coral reefs play in protecting coastlines and the food and income they provide to coastal communities.


What’s happening

Unfortunately, due to sunscreen, climate change, and a wide variety of threats, reefs are facing a crisis known as bleaching. There are current studies that prove more than half of the world’s reefs have vanished since the 1950s — largely blamed upon the 6,000 tons of sunscreen that enters the reef areas every year. Not to mention the UV-filtered chemicals from beachgoers are also affecting marine life — leading to the demand and necessity for reef-safe sun protection alternatives.


But what does “reef-safe” truly mean? Unsurprisingly, and equally as disheartening, reef-safe sunscreen brands and clean beauty products have something in common: Zero guidelines or evidence to back their claims, allowing them the ability to trick consumers into believing clean or buzzy ethos as a way to make sales.


Meaning, consumers and environmentalists who want to protect their body and do right by the ocean, are unclear on how to help and discern what products are actually safe and helpful.


What to avoid

Essentially, the main ingredients you need to stay clear of in sunscreen are oxybenzone and octinoxate, actives that absorb the sun’s rays and convert them to heat. These two big chemicals can harm the coral reefs DNA, disrupt hormonal process, and cause deformities that could decrease its protection against bleaching.


Oxybenzone has been studied extensively and has shown to be toxic to coral reefs at levels as low as 72 parts per trillion in less than 24 hours, posing a serious threat.


Again, like in the clean beauty movement, because there are no regulated definitions or standards to the meaning, customers can have a false sense of security when selecting a “reef-safe” option. Some might be oxybenzone-free but not reef-safe. The particle size of the ingredient is a big factor in being either nano or non-nano (larger than 100 nanometers). This is because when marine life ingests nanoparticles and reacts with UV rays to generate hydrogen peroxide, it can be toxic to phytoplankton and other coral species. However, most sunscreen don’t say how many particles they have.


Climate change, along with sunscreen, is causing the corals to starve to death. In fact, the UNESCO World Heritage Centre thinks the 29 coral sites won’t exist by the end of the century — threatened by sewage, overfishing, invasive species, coastal development, climate change, and non reef-safe sunscreen.


Of course none of this is to encourage you away from sunscreen, but is a way to share the facts and get you thinking of how you can make an individual difference.


Here’s the best sunscreen for your skin type.