the diminishing impact of reef safe sunscreen on the Great Barrier Reef

Is Reef Safe Sunscreen Marine Friendly?

Are Reef Safe Sunscreens Marine Friendly?

Maxiblock sunscreens do not contain oxybenzone or octyl methoxy cinnamate and are therefore deemed reef-safe in compliance with the Hawaii bill S2571 now in effect. But does this make our sunscreen ocean friendly?

The Hawaii bills & coral reefs

Effective as of 2021, the State of Hawaii is banning sunscreens using oxybenzone or octyl methoxy cinnamate after studies showed that those two UV filters can cause genetic damage to marine life including coral reefs. That ban had little relevance for Australia as oxybenzone or octyl methoxy cinnamate are barely used for Australian sunscreens.

Hawaii state also voted a new bill in 2021 that, if passed to law, would ban two additional UV filters, octocrylene and avobenzone, but not zinc oxide. What is the science now saying?

Latest scientific input

There is a public perception that inorganic UV filters such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are less toxic for corals than organic UV filters, however this is not confirmed by recent publications from Centre Scientific de Monaco or Wageningen Marine Research.

These publications also show that the newer organic UV filters are environmentally less harmful compared to the older organic UV filters and zinc oxide.

The effective impact of sunscreens on marine life remains however elusive, and the situation was put into perspective by one of Australia’s most recognised experts on the Great Barrier Reef, Professor Terry Hughes from James Cook University: "People make a long list of bad things that human beings do to coral reefs - I would place sunscreen at number 200".

Australian 4 hours water-resistant sunscreens best suited for marine friendliness

Sunscreens in Australia that meet the stringent Australian 4-hour water-resistant standard are designed to stay longer on the skin and not wash off easily. Consequently, the amount of UV filter dispersing into the water will be significantly less compared to sunscreens without water resistance or those meeting only the less stringent US or European standards.

What is reef-safe sunscreen?

The phrases "reef-safe" or "reef friendly sunscreen" are commonly employed to denote sunscreens without oxybenzone and octinoxate as their active ingredients: two prevalent UV-blocking harmful chemicals implicated in coral bleaching. Coral bleaching, characterized by the whitening of coral, indicates severe stress, rendering it vulnerable to disease and mortality, despite the coral remaining alive.

Consider the following guidelines to minimise the impact on coral reefs:

  • Avoid ingredients like oxybenzone and/or octinoxate: evidence indicates traditional sunscreens are particularly harmful to reefs and should be avoided.
  • Choose a mineral-based formula: mineral sunscreens containing zinc oxide and titanium oxide are recommended as they are natural ingredients and are less likely to cause coral bleaching. 
  • Steer clear of parabens: some sunscreens contain parabens, such as butylparaben, which have been linked to coral reef bleaching. Many brands offer "paraben-free" sunscreens due to health concerns surrounding parabens.
  • Opt for rub-on lotions: choose lotions that are applied directly to the skin rather than sprays to minimize the risk of the product landing on sand and washing into the ocean.

In summary

Maxiblock sunscreens meet Hawaii's reef-safe standards by excluding oxybenzone and octyl methoxy cinnamate, but their overall ocean-friendliness is uncertain. Recent research challenges the belief that inorganic UV filters like zinc oxide are less harmful to reefs. Australian sunscreens with stringent water resistance may be better for marine life.

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