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January 23, 2020

Labelling reef safe sunscreen

The world of reef safe sunscreens is a little bit like the Wild West. There’s currently no law governing the labelling of sunscreen as “reef safe”, so virtually anyone can from slip, slop, slap a label on their product claiming that it’s reef friendly. It’s called green washing.

As we covered in a previous post, certain chemicals can wreak all kinds of havoc on the marine world and wildlife — everything from coral bleaching to the passing of these chemicals from dolphin mothers to their calves — so it’s super important to educate ourselves and make sure we’re buying sunscreen that is legitimately reef safe. 

So how do we know if it’s actually reef safe, and what ingredients should we avoid?

As a general rule of thumb, the more elaborate and un-pronounceable the list of ingredients is on the back of a sunscreen, the more chance there is that it contains unfriendly chemicals.

The most well-known chemical pollutant found in oceans is oxybenzone — a single drop of which, when added to the equivalent of six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools, is enough to cause reasonable damage to coral reefs. 

However, it’s not enough for a "reef safe" product to simply be “oxybenzone free”, as we now know that there are plenty of other chemicals that pose a threat to the oceans than just old mate oxybenzone. It’s also not enough for sunscreens to be simply described as “zinc” or “zinc-based”, because they could involve harmful nanosized zinc oxide (keep your eyes peeled for “sheer” or “clear” zinc descriptions, as these are a tell-tale sign that nanosized zinc has been used). Instead, look specifically for the word “non-nano” where zinc is mentioned.

Still confused? It’s okay — thankfully, we have the HEL List.

Reef safe sunscreen and why it matters - underwater image of reef

What the hell is the HEL list?

The Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL) has put together a list of ingredients that are known to pose a threat to various waterways and wildlife. The list started with oxybenzone, but today includes 13 common sunscreen ingredients and continues to grow as new research emerges. 

Here’s the full list:

  • Any form of microplastic sphere or beads
  • Any nanoparticles, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Octocrylene
  • Para-aminobenzoic acid
  • Methyl Paraben
  • Ethyl Paraben
  • Propyl Paraben
  • Butyl Paraben
  • Benzyl Paraben
  • Triclosan

Bear in mind that some companies don’t specify exactly which ingredients are in their sunscreens —particularly if the ingredient has been contaminated by chemicals before making its way to the manufacturer.

If you’re unsure, you can always look for the Protect Land and Sea certification on sunscreens, which means the product has been independently tested and that none of the nasty HEL list chemicals have crept into the product. Certifications last two years to allow for new research.

SunButter reef safe sunscreen

Keeping it simple

Over here at SunButter, our primary motivator is keeping nasty chemicals out of the ocean (which has the excellent added benefit of keeping nasty chemicals out of our bodies, as well). Our reef safe sunscreen contains non-nanosized zinc oxide as its only active ingredient — because this is all that’s needed to create a physical barrier from the sun — and then we throw in some lovely natural ingredients such as Vitamin E and coconut oil to help keep your skin supple and spread the stuff around without resorting to reduced particle size. It’s a situation with wins all ‘round. 

As marine biologists and conservationists, we’re constantly keeping up to date with latest research in ocean-friendly practices and initiatives like the HEL list, and we’re super happy to answer any questions you might have about all things reef safe and beyond.