Reef Safe Sunscreens: Is Your Sunscreen Safe For Coral?

The topic of reef-friendly or reef-safe sunscreens has been getting a lot of press lately. New science continues to emerge and coral-dependent communities, including Hawaii and Palau, are passing laws banning certain types of sunscreen chemicals. At Badger it’s important to us that we do our part to protect the environment by making sunscreens that don’t harm coral reefs. We’ve been researching and writing about this issue since 2008. In this blog we summarize the problem and what the public and private sectors are doing about it, and help you to choose sunscreens that won’t harm coral reefs, especially as we are now into tropical vacation season!

reef safe sunscreen badger
Badger’s Reef Safe Sunscreens having fun in the sun in Puerto Rico.

Why aren’t all sunscreens reef safe?

Coral reefs are important yet delicate ecosystems that are already under enormous stress from human activities including pollution, fishing, tourism, development, and global warming. On top of these, scientists at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory and elsewhere have shown that certain sunscreen chemicals stress and kill coral and that the amount of these ingredients entering coral reef ecosystems is a major concern. They calculated that one drop in six and a half Olympic-sized pools is enough to kill coral and they recently found these chemicals in Florida Keys beach water at over 100 times the toxic level.

Several chemicals in sunscreens and cosmetics are toxic to various marine life; however, the main ingredients-of-concern to corals are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. These chemicals are cheap, legal, and effective active sunscreen ingredients and they are found in most sunscreens on the market. See links at the bottom of this page for more scientific details.

What are ‘they’ doing to protect coral reefs from harmful sunscreen ingredients?

Tropical coastal communities all over the world rely on healthy coral for tourism, fishing, ecosystem diversity, protection from storms, and more. Most of these have seen their coral health decline, and because they recognize the direct threat to their economies and ways of life, they are actively banning coral reef damaging sunscreens. Some examples:

  • Hawaii passed a state law banning sunscreens containing Oxybenzone and Octinoxate beginning in 2021. Read more.
  • The island nation of Palau in the Western Pacific passed a law restricting the sale and use of sunscreens and cosmetics containing ten ingredients of concern. Starting in 2020 retailers selling reef-damaging products face a $1000 fine, and visitors can have their ‘reef-toxic’ sunscreens confiscated. Read more.
  • The City of Key West in Florida is the latest high-profile community to take action against sunscreen chemicals. On January 15, 2019, the city commissioners will vote on whether to ban sunscreen products containing the chemicals Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. Read more.

Sunscreen manufacturers have responded to the problem in different ways. Most of the large ‘conventional’ sunscreen brands continue to use these ingredients, and either don’t discuss the issue or actively oppose community sunscreen bans, such as in Key West. Some sunscreen manufacturers are changing their formulas to remove these toxic ingredients. And many of ‘natural’ and ‘all-mineral’ sunscreen brands, including us here at Badger, have never used these types of ingredients and have been aware of our ‘reef-safe’ status for over a decade.

reef safe sunscreen
Snorkeler over a coral reef with school of tropical fish.

What can you do to help protect coral reefs from sunscreen damage?

First, educate yourself and evaluate your sources of information. Read about the issue from the scientists themselves and from trusted journalists and non-profits, not just sunscreen manufacturers, including us. Read and understand your sunscreen ingredients, so you know what you’re buying.

Second, the simplest and smartest thing you can do is to avoid using sunscreen in the first place. Seek shade during peak sun hours, wear a rash guard or a light wetsuit in the water, and wear a hat and light long sleeved shirt on land.

Third, if you are going to use a sunscreen, choose one that does not contain the chemicals known to harm coral. Not all sunscreens are the same, and this is where the ‘educate yourself’ and ‘read your labels’ pays off. There are a number of toxic sunscreen ingredients which you can read about at http://www.haereticus-lab.org/protect-land-sea-certification/ but the most common are Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, and parabens. On the other hand, many sunscreens are safe for corals, but you really have to read the ingredients to be sure. Label claims and logos can be deceptive. At Badger, we, of course, recommend our sunscreens but we also proudly recommend several other brands, including the members of the Safe Sunscreen Council.

Things to consider when looking for reef safe / reef friendly sunscreens:

  • All Mineral – Look for sunscreens whose only active ingredients are non-nano Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide. These are minerals, not synthetic chemicals, and are considered the best option for protecting coral. Besides, these mineral-based sunscreens have fewer human health concerns making them a better overall choice for you and your family.
  • Water Resistant – This regulated term will ensure that more of the sunscreen stays on your body and less washes off into the water.
  • Biodegradable – This is generally unregulated so you may have to do a little digging onto a sunscreen’s website to make sure they are actually testing.
  • Reef Safe – This claim is unregulated, and some brands have been known to make this claim while their products contain the exact ingredients shown to harm coral, so buyer beware.

Fourth, spread the word! Share this blog with your friends and family, especially anyone going on a tropical vacation this winter.

Finally, don’t let all this get you down. Enjoy the beach, have fun snorkeling on coral reefs, and be happy knowing that you’re making informed decisions and protecting these amazing ecosystems.  

Do you have any tropical beach travel plans this winter? Have you had an experience with a resort that has required reef-safe sunscreens? Please leave a comment and share your story.

More information:

Chris Hamilton

Chris Hamilton has been an E-Commerce, Sales & Marketing consultant with Badger since 2007. With a background in science and education he has helped with product and ingredient research and sourcing and has written educational pieces for the Badger website and other marketing materials. Chris does most of Badger's product photography and has shot and edited all of Badger's videos. Chris also maintains Badger's website and e-commerce strategies. Chris is an avid surfer, a traveler, and a deep house music DJ, and he also owns a video production company In the Wild Productions. Chris's favorite Badger products: Sleep Balm, All Cocoa Butter Lip Balms, & SPF35 Sport Sunscreen Stick.

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