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Natural Foods Merchandiser
Most companies don't test their sunscreen to determine if it actually is "reef safe." Getty Images

Secret Shopper: What is reef-safe sunscreen?

As more people become concerned about the health of the oceans, more consumers are likely to ask about reef-safe sunscreen.

To find out what retailers might know about reef-safe sunscreen, our secret shopper visited a natural foods market in the southeast.

Natural Foods Merchandiser: Some companies say their sunscreens are “reef safe,” but how can I know whether that’s actually true?

Retailer: It’s certain chemicals in sunscreen that harm the coral. Oxybenzone is a big one, and I can’t remember the other…But I do know that all the sunscreens we carry are oxybenzone free. Most of them are mineral based, so they are much safer for humans and the ocean.

NFM: Does a “reef safe” claim ensure that a sunscreen doesn’t have any of those chemicals?

Retailer: It should, but you can read the ingredients on the back to make sure.

How did this retailer do?

Craig Downs executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory.  Our expert educator: Craig Downs, who has a doctorate in cell and molecular biology, is the executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory

I don’t like the term “reef safe” because there is no agreed-upon definition. “Safe” implies a legal guarantee, which would mean a product has been ecotoxicity tested. Most companies don’t do this type of testing, so no one really knows if their products are safe for reefs or not. The closest we can come is to ascertain whether specific ingredients are present and whether they could threaten marine ecosystems. 

This is part of why the Haereticus Environmental Library started Protect Land + Sea certification, which tests products for ingredients on our HEL LIST: oxybenzone; octinoxate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor; octocrylene; para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA); triclosan; methyl, ethyl, propyl, butyl and benzyl parabens; along with any microplastic spheres or beads; and nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

Since 1992, studies have shown that oxybenzone poses a health risk to mammals; in the late 1990s, it was deemed toxic to fish. Since then, more than 100 scientific papers have demonstrated that oxybenzone is toxic to wildlife in general. Octinoxate isn’t far behind, but since it’s much harder to study than oxybenzone, there has been less intensive research on it.

Without endorsing or disparaging any company or product, I tell people to always read ingredients lists. If they see any ingredients on our HEL LIST, it’s probably a “problematic” formulation if used in large quantities in popular tourist areas. For more information about specific sunscreen ingredients and their marine impacts, check out the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2019 limited bibliography.

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