Is your sunscreen Reef Safe?

Updated 5/21/12
Please read below some updates. this has been a hell of a journey to try to find reef safe sunscreens. It appears we may all be subjected to false advertising. Now this just ticks me off so I am delving deeper. It has made me aware that I need to be THOROUGH in a thought process and review. Apparently many of the 4 “BAD ingredients” found in sunscreen are found in many shampoos and body washes. These products are used in many orders of magnitude greater than sunscreens. We wash, they go down the drain and into our oceans. Just saying, so below is the original post and the revisions. I will continue to revise as new findings come up.

Rich and I have been talking quite a bit as the weather heats up here about sun tan lotion and the harm it can cause the reefs.  I just got word from my Merritt Island (which I closed) store’s old assistant manager, she wants to come back and work in the Vero Store and leave her other job.  Good news for me (and hubby if you read this before I get home) and dive time.

Last year Rich and I stopped wearing sunscreen when diving all together.    Keeping safe from the sun is important and at the same time, you want to do everything to prevent doing harm to the reefs that are so important for the health of the ocean.  Hubby Rich dons his 1/2″mil for sunscreen while I skin dive. Being of Irish descent, it can get pretty scary how red he can get at the beginning of the year. To give you a picture, we have a joke about how after 17 years of living here in Florida, each year he adds an inch of tan on his arms where the freckles join together. He will inevitable fry the back of his neck or feet of we spend a bit of time on shore before heading to get fills. There is no point in putting on sunscreen for 30 minutes and then having your mask fog up or worse suscreen run into your eyes when it mixes with the salr water as you submerge. You get the picture. So this year, I am going to try out some of the reef safe, biodegradable sunscreens I have heard. Today, I am going to list a few and give the said pros and cons. The only two I have heard of are Badger and Cactus Juice.  I have never tried a “Reef Safe”  sunscreen so this will be unbiased.  Then I am going to order some and start reviewing it by adding to this post.
Do you know what wearing sunscreen while diving or snorkeling can do to your reefs?

When swimming, snorkeling ,diving, or even jet skiing some sunscreen can wash off your body into the surrounding waters, potentially affecting nearby marine life. A 2008 scientific study showed that some commonly used chemical sunscreen ingredients cause coral bleaching. For reference read National Geographic’s “Swimmers Sunscreen Killing off oCoral” and Nature News article “Sunscreen Wipes out Coral” .  Very eye opening.

In short between 4000-6000 metric tons of sunscreen washes off beach and water goers which has the potential to wash onto our loevly coral reefs.  Up to 10% of our coral reefs may be threatened across the planet

According to some studies (Click to read study) These 4 common sunscreen ingredients that have been shown to cause coral bleaching:   Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), Butylparaben, Octinoxate,  and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor  (Allowed in Europe and Canada, not in USA or Japan.)  Plus some of them have been shown to have harmful effects on humans.  These sunblock chemicals stimulate viral replication until coral’s zooxanthallae explore, releasing viruses into the surrounding seawater, where they can infect neighboring coral reef systems.

It appears that this article may have been started to pump up smaller sunscreen companies that use zinc and titanium dioxide. There have been valid criticisms by sunscreen chemists and marine biologists of this claim.
#1) This test was done in a sealed bag does not reflect the rapid dilution and water circulation that would occur in the open ocean. A marine biologist stated “Basically if we took the same protocol which in layman terms would be a live coral, sea water, a sealable plastic bag and dumped zinc oxide into it and sat it on the shelf for a few days, I am pretty sure the coral would not survive either”. In essence, this is basically what the study did with the other sunscreens they claim bleach and kill the corals.

#2) No established a NOAEL (No observed adverse effect level), which denotes the level of exposure of an organism, found by experiment or observation, at which there is no biologically or statistically significant increase in the frequency or severity of any adverse effects in the exposed population when compared to its appropriate control. This level may be used in the process of establishing a dose-response relationship, and is a fundamental step in most risk assessment methodologies.

#3) The study makes numerous questionable assumptions about concentrations of ingredients that may be present in open bodies of seawater. These assumptions could have easily been determined by taking a basis of sunscreens per number of swimmer’s per square foot to calculate a more realistic dilution.

#4) why wasn’t other sunscreens ingredients in their study, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

While we all should be aware that there are other factors like global warming, pollution and human negligence in or around the reefs particularly with boats, jets skis and even your feet, it is alarming.  I personally feel that if I wear reef safe sunscreen, it is one way I can show support and make a stand to protect my reef on local level.

Apparently all over Mexico, the use of biodegradable sunblock and sunscreen is starting to be required for entry into the waters, scuba diving or snorkeling tours.  At such famous locales such as Xcaret, Xel-Ha, Garrafon Park, Chankanaab Park, and the protected marine park in Cozumel, use of biodegradable sunscreen is mandatory, and any other type of sun products are confiscated upon entry to their facilities.  I am confused a bit as upon further research I found it was recommended that you want to look for sunscreen that is specifically designed to be safer for reefs and marine life. Beware of claims such as “contains natural ingredients” and “biodegradable”.  Biodegradable doesn’t mean reef-friendly. Also beware of sunscreens that claim to be safe to children. There are all sorts of hazardous chemicals in children’s products. are a few I found and am going to try.

Cactus Juice – contains 4% Oxybenzone

I contacted this company.  Super nice, just had change of ownership.  They are aware of reef safe requests and are working to find out all details.(5/21/12 update, I have a sample coming and will put it through the tests. While I originally was led to believe by the mas shysteria this was not reef safe, it may indeed be, more to come later)

Cactus Juice Outdoor Protection’s blend of Prickly Pear Cactus, emollients, moisturizers and sunscreen provides all round protection from dry skin and sun burn and a natural and effective shield from Nature’s assaults. The lotion carries a light citrus scent, leaves no oily residue and contains no harmful chemicals. This is the only one I see without zinc.  I had seen this touted everywhere as reef safe, further information required (5/21/12 update)

Maui Naturals

A naturally formulated sunscreen with no PABA, no Oxybenzone, no Nano particles, no synthetic fragrances, and of course no Parabens!

Light eucalyptus and lemongrass fragrance.  Spoke with the owner (4/26/12) and they seem to get it in Hawaii.  I will be getting some more information for you and will be testing this product most likely next week.

Badger SPF 30 Unscented Sunscreen

They are a little elusive.  Refused to be part of the sample so this makes me wary. Sent me order forms no problem but it may take someone a bit to get back to me as it is start of season in Maine.  We shall see?? (update 5/20/12) no samples and no verifiable research that I see to back up claims. Is this all part of a clever smoke and mirrors advertising campaign to fool you with pretty symbols. I will contact them again today and give it another go.

Broad spectrum UVA & UVB protection
Same great formula as the original SPF 30 sunscreen without any scent added
Water resistant for at least 40 minutes
Protects with the mineral Zinc Oxide, not with chemicals or Titanium Dioxide
Top rated for safety & efficacy by several consumer protection groups

Raw Elements USA All Natural ECO FORMULA SPF 30+ UVA/UVB True Broad Spectrum Sunscreen
Biodegradable – Hypoallergenic – Reef Safe – Non Migrating – Certified Organic Ingredients
Very Water Resistant – Never Stings Eyes – Floating Tube

(4/26)12) update supposed to be as clean as it gets.  you are supposed to be able to even reapply under water. I have spoken to a company rep and we will have something here shortly to test. (5/21/12 – Click here for review on this product) I am concerned about the zinc content. My research is indicating that zinc is not biodegradable and is not water soluble. I am looking into this further.
SmartShield’s SPF 30 Sunscreen
Eco Friendly
Oil Free, PABA free, Aloe Vera base
Waterproof and Sweat Proof
UVA/UVB Protection
Marine friendly and safe for fly lines, and lineman’s gloves

Maui Soap Company Sunscreen, SPF 30, Chemical-Free, Fragrance-Free, Reef-Safe, 4 oz.
Effective and safe for use on face and body.
Non-comedogenic, anti-inflammatory, and an all natural mineral based active sun protection system.
A superior blend of antioxidants for wrinkle busting action.
Uses chemical-free sun blocking agents.

(4/26/12)  Like this company.  Smaller mom & pop like.  They do not contain the 4 no no ingredients.  I will be getting a package here shortly and featuring our findings
Reef Safe Biodegradable Waterproof

UVA – UVB Protection
Waterproof up to 80 minutes
Biodegrades in Oceans, Lakes & Rivers, Non-Toxic to Sea-life

Purple Prairie SunStuff SPF 30 100% Natural Sunscreen

100% natural ingredients
20% zinc oxide = 30 SPF
Top safety marks in the EWG’s Skin Deep Cosmetics Database
Non-whitening UVA/UVB protection
Large 9.5-ounce bottle

Eco Logical Skin Care Body Sunscreen
A natural sunscreen for the whole family
No chemical UV absorbers
No eye sting
Reef safe, biodegradable – perfect for ocean or beach adventures!
Preservative and Fragrance Free
Very water resistant
SPF 30+
Non-Whitening Zinc Oxide, Non-Nano
Cruelty Free

Mexitan: Tropical Sands

Made in the USA – thats a plus

INGREDIENTS: Zinc Oxide (3.5%), Titanium Dioxide (3.5%), Aloe Barbadensis Leaf (Aloe Vera Gel) Juice, Aqua (Deionized Water), Beeswax, Butyrospermum Parkii (Shea) Butter, Camellia Sinensis Leaf (Green Tea) Extract, Cocos Nucifera (Coconut) Oil, Eucalyptus Globulus (Eucalyptus) Oil, Glycerin, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Seed Oil, Helianthus Annuus (Sunflower) Wax, Lecithin, p-Anisic Acid, Simmondsia Chinensis (Jojoba) Oil, Tocopherol (Vitamin-E)

Labels say “Biodegradable” and “Eco-Friendly” for acceptance in eco-nature parks.

I will tell you I am seeing studies that zinc oxide hurts marine animals so I am perplexed? I am also seeing data sheetsfrom companies that clearly state zinc oxide is harmful. “Very toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long-term adverse effects in the aquatic environment.
This material and its container must be disposed of as hazardous waste.
Avoid release to the environment.”
Are companies just picking and choosing what they want to feature as scientific proof to back their claims? If these data sheets are out there does every company see this when they order zinc oxide?
I refer you to this new study I uncovered 5/21/12.
Toxicities of nano zinc oxide to five marine organisms: influences of aggregate size and ion solubility.
Also the National Library of Medicine states that one of the uses of zinc oxide is as a pesticide!
I refer you to
this article.Target pests: moss, fungi, bacteria.
Not that I am a scientist but surely I am not the only one seeing a red flag here.
Also just today I found this posted “Zinc oxide, the must-have ingredient in sunscreens, can have harmful effects on the body if used frequently. Most girls today apply sunscreen every time they walk out from shade. This is a major concern,” added Khurana.

According to research carried out at Missouri University of Science and Technology, one of the world’s leading technological research universities, some compounds found in sunscreen can increase the rate of skin cancer if exposed to light.

I also just found this article with concerns about micronized zinc (non nano)

I will continue to do some research and try them out.  If you have any insight and can help, please comment here. As you can see, I am going to now have to do a full out report on zinc and titanium dioxide. Yikes!

How about we come up with whatever Bear Gryll’s used on his program direct from the coral itself for sunscreen protection. All natural, renewable and sustainable if you have coral farms.

Meanwhile, check back often or tag this post to get updates as I experiment with each one on my body.
Does it pass as a good sunscreen?  Is is eye sting free?  What does it smell like?  Is it greasy? How much does it cost?  Is it easy to find?

About daniellesdives

diving enthusiast
This entry was posted in East Coast Florida Diving, Florida Diving, Technical tips, info, or other useful thoughts and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

16 Responses to Is your sunscreen Reef Safe?

  1. Kim says:

    Hi you mentionable the bottom of your post the last bottle was called Mexitan made in USA. That product contains titanium dioxide 3.5%. In your article the paragraph right above the badger picture you mention titanium dioxide is an ingredient is a bad chemical.

    • interesting, it however does not state that Titanium dioxide is bad, just that they don’t use it. But I will check out the effects of Titanium Dioxide if any on the reef. A quick update, I tried to contact Cactus juice but apparently new ownership and can’t find a good contact #

  2. yruss says:

    Have you come to any conclusions on the sunscreen issue?

    • still testing but keep watching I am also testing a reef safe bcd cleeaner

      • Shannon says:

        I use SunClear SPF30+ Natural Sunscreen from Grahams Natural Alternatives. It is an Australian made sunscreen which is fantastic. It is reef friendly, 2hrs waterproof and goes on clear. Other friends I have talked to have had no problems with customs.

    • please read new updates posted. I am finding out lots of interesting and controversial things. Some companies are refusing to backup any claims. Stay tuned for more updates as we review new things.

  3. Pingback: Today is National Endangered Species Day! | Danielle's Dives Blog

  4. Pingback: Raw Elements Sunscreen | Danielle's Dives Blog

  5. Larry says:

    Have you seen “Reef Safe” by Tropical Seas Inc.? It contains both octinoxate and oxybenzone. How do you NAME your product Reef Safe if it has 2 of the 4 chemicals known to cause coral bleaching?

    • I am a diver and do not own or operate any sunscreen company. however I have been on a quest to find something that us divers could find safe for the reef, effective sunscreen protection without any sacrifices, that we could also recommend to others. Please read all comments I posted before you post. if you have a safe alternative, please by all means suggest

  6. Erin G.-W. says:

    Thank you for all your research. I came across your post in searching for my own answer to “coral safe sunscreen”. This article from Diver Mag specifically states Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide as culprits for not being biodegradable ( However, the most well-reviewed “reef safe” sunscreens on actually tout the use of Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide as ingredients. Incredibly confusing! Unfortunately, there just seem to be more questions. But I appreciate that you name actual products. Gives a jumping off point. Happy Diving!

  7. Pascal says:

    Hi Danielle,

    Let me know how Maui manufactured suncreens turn out to be after tested, just send me an email, mahalo,


  8. Lisa Parr says:

    I found what they had to say about the “biodegradability” of zinc here pretty interesting and thpught you might as well:

  9. Katstuff says:

    Thanks for your information. Although confused, our family of 4 bought the Mexitan SPF 30 and, after following directions about mixing and applying, found it very successful when used for a week diving,snorkeling and kayaking in Turks and Caicos.

Leave a Reply to daniellesdives Cancel reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s