Motivated by biologist Craig Downs’s research connecting oxybenzone to destructive coral bleaching – in 2018, then Hawaii governor David Ing signed into law a bill banning the sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate from the state. The bill went into effect in 2021, and three years later, the U.S. Virgen Islands, Key West, Palau, Aruba and more have passed their own versions of the legislation.


The sunscreen conversation

According to Spate, “Reef safe” is one of the top five claims by increase in average monthly search volume – which means it’s driving change in the sunscreen conversation. Excluding SPF claims, “Reef safe” ranks within the top three benefits by average monthly search volume. Also, searches for mineral sunscreens, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have increased.


What does “reef safe” mean?

If a sunscreen is making the claim “reef safe” or “reef friendly” it means they are not including known harmful ingredients like oxybenzone and octinoxate. However, there is no set standard for what “reef safe” truly means, with the term being unregulated.

Concerned by this rise in “reef safe” marketing, a growing numbering brands have concluded the rush to the claim has overcorrected. The truth is, there is no standard test to prove that any product is completely safe for marine ecosystems and coral reefs. Not all brands use the “reef safe” claim specifically; they mix in the terms “reef-friendly” and “Hawaii-compliant” or state they do not contain oxybenzone and octinoxate to protect coral reefs.

Some brands have moved away from putting the term “reef-friendly” on products as well and even launched a campaign challenging the beauty claims “reef safe” and “biodegradable.”


Why do coral reefs matter?

It is important to understand the significance of coral reefs to not just marine life, but to our planet. Coral reefs are one of the most diverse and crucial ecosystems on the planet. The diversity of life found in the habitats created by coral reefs are called the “rainforest of the sea.” “About 25% of the ocean’s fish depend on healthy coral reefs.” (“Coral reef ecosystems – National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration”). The fish and other marine life use coral reefs as food sources and shelter, and to safely reproduce and protect their young offspring from predators.

In addition to being a critical part of marine life, coral reefs are extremely important to human beings. Coral reefs protect our coastlines from increasingly frequent storms and coastal erosion and also have a crucial role in the world’s economy, with half a billion people relying on coral reefs for income from diving, fishing, and snorkeling industries. According to the World Economic Forum, “25% of fish species spend some part of their life cycle in reefs, even though they cover less than 1% of the ocean floor. Losing such an essential part of the ocean environment could therefore have rippling effects that cause much broader collapse. Estimates are that up to 80% of the oxygen you are breathing in right now comes from the ocean. It doesn’t come from the land. For you to continue to breathe, you must have a healthy ocean.


When seeing “reef safe” or “reef friendly” claims on a product, one may assume that the ingredients studied and shown to harm reefs are not in the formula. It is important to realize that avoiding these two ingredients does not guarantee the absence of any other ingredients with a detrimental effect on the environment. When developing sunscreens be mindful of the ingredients and the claim – if it is truly reef safe.

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