EDIT 07/12/17: I’ve removed the list of reef-friendlier sunscreens. I will be confirming with these brands how they created and tested the SPF of their sunscreens before recommending them. Other edited portions will have an asterisk before the paragraph. Thank you @kobecow on IG and /u/Feanne on Reddit for pointing this out. Please lemme know if there’s any wrong information or other information that needs to be added/changed! Feel free to comment below, message me, or email me at email@example.com and I will fix it immediately. Hope you can all share your thoughts as well in this discussion!
Check out this introduction to the reef-friendly label HERE. It’s basically a longer TL;DR.
- Both organic and inorganic UV filters are not reef-friendly.
- Zinc oxide seems to be reef-friendlier as of the moment.
- The other ingredients in sunscreens matter just as much as the UV filters.
- The current concentrations of UV filters found in waters don’t seem to have reached high toxicity levels yet, but the increasing use of sunscreen in almost all personal care products make it a risk we may soon face.
- Climate change is still the biggest concern when it comes to coral bleaching, but the point above shows that UV filter pollution is an increasing concern as well.
- Most importantly, everything is toxic. It just depends at what concentration does it become toxic.
Table of Contents:
II. List of other things you can do to help
III. List of reef-friendlier sunscreens
IV. Some interesting sources regarding the discussion
Before I start, I do agree that climate change is a much bigger player in coral bleaching than reef-friendly sunscreens. However, most of us feel helpless against climate change. Switching to reef-friendlier products is one tangible and easy thing we can do, but I’ve included some other skincare-related things you can do to help if you’re interested (as this is a skincare blog).
Chemical vs Physical
1. “Chemical” or Organic Sunscreen
- From now on, we’re going to call “chemical” sunscreens organic.
- Organic meaning it contains carbon
- Organic sunscreens typically work by absorbing UV rays
- ie. benzophene, oxybenzone, octyl methocinnamate, etc
2. “Physical” or Inorganic Sunscreen
- We will now refer to “physical” sunscreens as inorganic.
- Inorganic sunscreens typically work as a “shield” or physical blocker against UV rays.
- You’ll find that inorganic sunscreens are heavier and leave a white cast unlike organic sunscreens which feel lighter on the skin
- ie. zinc oxide, titanium dioxide
Common marketing labels
1. Mineral sunscreen
- Uses inorganic filters in their formula
- Sometimes referred to by bloggers (and brands) as “natural” sunscreen
- ex. Badger, Aveno, Human Nature
2. Nano & Non-nano
- No regulation for the term, so there is no exact size for the ingredient to be called “nano” or “non-nano”
- Supposedly smaller than non-nano
- Preferred over non-nano because it does not leave a white cast
- Supposedly bigger or the “usual” size
- Preferred over nano because some believe that nanoparticles can enter your skin
- Sometimes used alongside the “reef-friendly” label
- Can be decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms
4. Reef-friendly Sunblock
- Usually made with only inorganic sunscreens, but Tropical Seas claims to have made a sunblock that uses organic UV filters
- “Reef-friendly” meaning it should not cause coral bleaching
- Does not necessarily mean it is not harmful to other marine life (such as fish)
Is there such a thing as “reef-friendly” sunscreen?
No. Both organic and inorganic sunscreens are pollutants. All kinds of skincare pollutants (sunscreen, insect repellent, preservatives) get to the ocean either directly (ie. wearing sunscreen to the beach) or indirectly (i.e. wastewater when you wash off your products).
Organic filters have been shown to cause coral bleaching, possibly by promoting viral infections. Though it can biodegrade over time, it’s presence has been found in sediment and some marine life which shows that organic UV filters does build up.
Inorganic UV filters do not biodegrade. ZnO, for example, can separate into zinc and oxygen but it stops there. Zinc oxide potentially becomes sediment, and sedimentation is proven to cause coral bleaching by blocking sunlight.
So why are some sunscreens marketed as reef-friendly?
From the body of knowledge we have right now, inorganic sunscreens are reef-friendlier. Not necessarily friendly, but friendlier.
From the looks of it, smaller brands creating these products either don’t know better but have good intentions OR they’re just marketing a sunscreen they created without consciously making it “reef-friendly.” However, all businesses trying to push these labels are at fault. The research is clear: that it’s actually really unclear and the Marine Science community has no one stand. Neither organic or inorganic sunscreen is certified, 100%, without a doubt reef-friendly. From the body of knowledge we have now, inorganic sunscreens seem reef-friendlier but neither has been proven to be unequivocably harmless.
It must also be noted that the other ingredients in the sunscreen formulation matter just as much as the UV filters. The label “mineral sunscreen,” for example, only takes into account the presence of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, NOT the reef-friendliness of the other ingredients in the formulation.
But Badger said —
But Tropical Seas said –
Both Badger and Tropical Seas are brands selling products. They’ve been throwing shade at each for quite a while now with neither having peer-reviewed open source research that backs up either of their claims.
But let’s talk about Tropical Seas first.
Go to their website and follow the sources they cite. It’s not going to add up. Their claim for the MSDS for zinc oxide, for example, cites the MSDS for titanium dioxide. One of their claims also lead to non-existent sources in the citation. Most of their sources are also outdated (the earliest being from 2011) and difficult to confirm.
They claim that:
- Organic sunscreens are better because they biodegrade.
- Studies showing that organic sunscreens cause coral bleaching are invalid because they do not test the finished itself, but rather the sunscreen ingredient.
- Their sunscreen is reef-friendly because it absorbs into the skin and does not rub off in the water.
Their first claim is valid but does not take into account how long organic sunscreens take to biodegrade. It could still cause harm during that time, especially if it builds up.
Their second claim makes a good point, but the studies that supposedly back up that claim aren’t peer-reviewed or even available. On the other hand, the studies that they are bashing are. Sunscreen build-up shows that even without testing the many individual sunscreen products, the sunscreen ingredient itself can still be found in waters. Going onto the third claim, take note that they tested their formulation. Do we know for sure if their claims are true? No, because they won’t share their full studies.
For the record, Tropical Seas told me that they are planning to eventually make their research available to other brands and hopefully everyone else. I do hope it’s true, and I hope it becomes open-source as soon as possible.
Do their results apply to other sunscreens that use organic filters? No. Tropical Seas tested their formulation, not the UV filters alone. Their results do not make organic filters safer in general safer in other formulations.
Okay, now let’s talk about Badger.
You’ll see a lot of “reef-safe” and “biodegradable” labels that they’ll try to low-key drop when it doesn’t apply to their other variants but continue to market themselves as reef-friendly overall. Unlike Tropical Seas, their Sunscreen Info and FAQ sound more level-headed, but their use of science-based facts seem to be considerably less. Or, at least, only when convenient.
They aren’t conducting any studies for the reef-safe label as a whole as far as I can tell. Until Tropical Seas makes their research open to peer review, take both TS and Badger’s claims with a grain of salt. Remember that they are companies trying to sell you a product, and even TS’s collaboration with Mote Laboratories is paid.
So… which one do I use?
Neither organic or inorganic UV filters are 100% harmless to marine life, so I truly don’t know. As zinc oxide is considered to be reef-friendlier as of the moment, I’m leaning towards sunscreens with the minimal number of ingredients.
As mentioned, organic filters seem to build up in waters. Not as sediment, but concentrations of them were found in sediment and some marine life (such as oysters, freshwater fish, molluscs, etc) and we don’t seem to have found a way to completely remove them from our wastewater.
*There are sunscreens that claim to have sun protection using only “natural” filters like cocoa butter, shea butter, and certain types of oils. The efficacy of these sunscreens is highly contested. Unless the SPF has been properly tested, they’re not a safe bet.
I urge you to research for yourself (scientific journals, not google results) and decide according to the situation. There are other factors we need to consider when going reef-friendly. Tropical Seas’ claim #3 still stands. If the sunscreen fully absorbs into your skin, the amount of product washed off directly into the ocean or indirectly through wastewater should be none to minimal. This raises a few questions you need to answer yourself:
- Does your sunscreen fully absorb into your skin?
– And how sure are you?
- Do you apply more than your skin can absorb?
- If your inorganic sunscreen doesn’t absorb into your skin, is it formulated in a way that doesn’t wash off in the water?
- What are the other ingredients that are potentially harmful in your sunscreen? (ie. fragrance, preservatives, insect repellent, etc)
– Are they toxic to marine life even at low concentrations?
– Are they biodegradable?
I’ve included some great sources HERE. A few of my favorites to give you a good overview of the issue + excerpts. The sources below are better for further reading.
At the end of the day, I agree with Tropical Seas saying that using the sunscreen with the least amount of impact is the best course of action. We just don’t know or maybe don’t even have that sunscreen yet.
Other skincare-related ways we can help:
- Make your face mask wrappers, samples, and plastics into ecobricks.
- Minimize the use of occlusives or use completely biodegradable ones like facial oils. Because occlusives don’t absorb into your skin, they simply get washed off and eventually find it’s way to the ocean.
- Do not use other skincare products before entering the ocean. Wash off any residue from existing products before entering the ocean and use the minimum amount of sunscreen needed. This ideally minimizes direct exposure to pollutants.
- Do not touch or step on corals. Ideally minimizes direct exposure to UV filters and touching them in any way causing coral bleaching regardless.
- Switch to reef-friendlier products in your whole skincare routine. Wastewater appears to bring the most skincare pollutants into the ocean, so washing off your routine at the end of the day may help minimize that.
If you’d like to go the extra mile, the following would also be great:
- Sign the petition against Nickelodeon in Coron.
- Call out brands and bloggers that market their sunscreens for beach use without a clear warning.
- Ask brands to consciously create reef-friendly sunscreens. V&M Naturals and In Her Element are two brands that have always been open to feedback and suggestions. A lot of our small local startups are too.
- Demand brands to clearly state on their label how reef-safe their sunscreens are.
And if you’re interested in learning more about marine conservation as a whole, Save Philippine Seas is a great resource.
List of reef-friendlier sunscreens:
Some sources if you’re interested in more research + excerpts I found interesting to note:
Occurrence and toxicity of musks and UV filters in the marine environment (Rainieri S, Barranco A, Primec M, Langerholc T, 2016)
Occurrence of eight UV filters in beaches of Gran Canaria (Canary Islands). An approach to environmental risk assessment (A. Sanchez Rodriguez, M. Rodrigo Sanz, J.R. Betancort Rodriguez, 2015)
Occurrence of personal care products as emerging chemicals of concernin water resources: A review (Diana Montes-Grajales, Mary Fennix-Agudelo, Wendy Miranda-Castro, 2017)
Excerpt: “Fragrances, antiseptics, sunscreens and insect repellents were the most commonly monitored compounds, while preservatives, antioxidants and flavorants present in cosmetics and cleansing products has been less studied as EPs in water matrices.”
Occurrence, distribution and ecological risk assessment of multipleclasses of UV filters in marine sediments in Hong Kong and Japan (Mirabelle M.P. Tsui, H.W. Leung, Billy K.Y. Kwan, Ka-Yan Ng,Nobuyoshi Yamashitad, Sachi Taniyasud, Paul K.S. Lama, Margaret B. Murphya, 2015)
Excerpt: “It should be noted that some UV filter metabolites have been shown to be more toxic than the parent compound and hazards posed by these metabolites to the environment cannot be ruled out.” (talking about benzotriazole and benzophenone UV filters in sediment and sewage sludge by Z. Zhang et al)
Occurrence, distribution and ecological risk assessment of multiple classes of UV filters in surface waters from different countries (Mirabelle M.P. Tsui, H.W. Leung, Tak-Cheung Wai, Nobuyoshi Yamashita, Sachi Taniyasu, Wenhua Liu, Paul K.S. Lam, Margaret B. Murphy, 2014)
Sunscreens in wastewater
Seasonal occurrence, removal efficiencies andpreliminary risk assessment of multiple classes oforganic UV filters in wastewater treatment plants (Mirabelle M.P. Tsui, H.W. Leung, Paul K.S. Lam,Margaret B. Murphy, 2014)
Excerpt: “In this study, the effectiveness of different wastewater treatment methods was investigated and most of the targeted 12 organic UV filters showed incomplete removal by these processes.”
UV filters are an environmental threat in the Gulf of Mexico: a case study of Texas coastal zones (Hamidreza Sharifan, David Klein, Audra N. Morse, 2016)
Excerpt: “Texas coastal zones consist of several sensitive estuarine that may be significantly affected by cumulative effects of UV filter release and contamination by PAHs. Rather than direct release through wash off from the skin, a considerable amount of UV filters may be released through showering or rubbing off with towels or clothes. This number may increase more during laundering or showering by using other personal care products containing UV filters (i.e. shampoos, cosmetics, etc.) and indirectly be discharged to the surface bodies through wastewater.”
Are sunscreens a new environmental risk associated withcoastal tourism? (David Sánchez-Quiles, Antonio Tovar-Sánchez, 2015)
Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections (Roberto Danovaro, Lucia Bongiorni, Cinzia Corinaldesi, Donato Giovannelli, Elisabetta Damiani, Paola Astolfi, Lucedio Greci, and Antonio Pusceddu, 2008)
Excerpt: “Sunscreens cause the rapid and complete bleaching of hard corals, even at extremely low concentrations. The effect of sunscreens is due to organic ultraviolet filters, which are able to induce the lytic viral cycle in symbiotic zooxanthellae with latent infections.”
Possible environmental effects of sunscreen run-off (page exceprt from 2008)
Excerpt: “The US Environmental Protection Agency regards UV filters as environmental contaminants because they are measurable in many aquatic ecosystems.”
I’ll be updating this post as I come across new info. My understanding and capability is honestly very limited, so if you have any information regarding the topic hope you can share it!