What Is Reef-Safe Sunscreen?

The new law goes into effect Jan. 1, 2021, but some visitors to Hawaii are looking for reef-safe sunscreen now. EpicStockMedia/Shutterstock

When you head to the beach, sunscreen is one of the first things you grab. But because of a new law in Hawaii, you many now be more likely to take a look at the label before you start slathering.

Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate, which break down coral reefs. Tourists will still be able to buy other sunscreen elsewhere and use it on the islands. The law will go into effect Jan. 1, 2021.

"By signing this measure today, we will become the first in the world to enact this type of strong legislation to actively protect our marine ecosystem from toxic chemicals," said Hawaii Gov. David Ige, upon signing the bill on July 3. "This is just one small step for protecting and restoring the resiliency of Hawaii's reefs."

According to the National Park Service (NPS), 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter reef areas annually. Because an estimated 90 percent of snorkeling and diving tourists are concentrated on 10 percent of the world's reefs, the most popular reefs (like those in national parks) are exposed to the most sunscreen.

Checking the label

teen girl looking at sunscreens
For reef-friendly sunscreens, check the label and look at the ingredients. Iakov Filimonov/Shutterstock

If you're concerned about protecting the reefs when you hit the water, the easiest way to see if a sunscreen meets the regulations is to check the label to see if it contains oxybenzone and octinoxate. The ingredients are widespread and found in many major brands. (You can search by brand in the Environmental Working Group's guide to sunscreens.)

But these aren't the only two ingredients that may be harmful to reefs, Craig A. Downs, Ph.D., executive director of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, tells Consumer Reports. Researchers are studying other chemicals that may be hazardous to marine life.

While no sunscreen is completely safe for reefs, the NPS recommends looking for those with titanium oxide or zinc oxide, which are natural mineral ingredients, that have not been found to be harmful to corals. Sunscreens that are made for children or for people with sensitive skin also typically have gentler chemicals as active ingredients.

Looking for 'reef safe'

Some manufacturers have labeled their sunscreens as "reef safe," which would appear to be an easy way to choose a product that's friendly for the marine environment. But because there's no exact definition for the term, it isn't regulated by the government.

That means manufacturers aren't required to do any testing to show the products don't harm marine life, Downs tells Consumer Reports. Even if the products are safe during testing, high concentrations might pose a problem.

"Even if you have something relatively safe," says Downs, "having 5,000 people getting into the water at a single beach, the oils from most sunscreen products can induce toxicity."

Another solution

woman wading in surf with hat and shirt
Covering up with a hat, shirt and sunglasses also helps protect you from the sun's rays. chitsanupong Pakdeekul/Shutterstock

No one is saying you shouldn't protect yourself from the sun, of course. In fact, some dermatologists are worried that increased awareness for reef-friendly products might cause some people to stop using sun protection altogether.

In addition to looking for alternative products, there's an additional way to help block the sun's harmful ultraviolet rays. You can cover up using clothing with sun protection faction (SPF) built right in. You can also wear light-colored, long-sleeved T-shirts or rash guards, as well as hats and sunglasses to protect you from the sun.

As the National Park Service says, "Remember, if it's on your skin, it's on the reef. Be reef friendly! Reduce the amount of sunscreen you leave behind."