Coral Reef Safe Sunscreen

In Brief
The sunscreen that washes off your body when swimming may affect aquatic life.
Some commonly used chemical sunscreen ingredients cause coral bleaching and may be affecting coral reefs.
Badger does not use any of these damaging ingredients in our sunscreens and they are safe for coral reefs.

Coral Reef Safe Sunscreens

You may have read that sunscreens can damage coral in such news stories as "Sunscreen Killing off Coral" by National Geographic and "Sunscreen Wipes Out Corals" by NatureNews. These and all other reports of the sunscreen/coral connection were based on one prominent scientific study by Roberto Danovaro and his colleagues at the Marche Polytechnic University in Ancona, Italy.

Their paper is entitled, Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections, and it was published in the peer reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives in 2008. To date this is the only peer reviewed published scientific information about sunscreens affects on coral.

Read or download the entire original paper here:
Danovaro R, Bongiorni L, Corinaldesi C, Giovannelli D, Damiani E, Astolfi P, et al. 2008. Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections. Environ Health Perspect 116:441-447.


A brief summary of their findings:

  • Each year between 4000-6000 metric tons (4400-6600 US tons) of sunscreen washes off swimmers and snorkelers into coral reef environments.

  • Four common sunscreen ingredients were shown to cause complete coral bleaching at very low concentrations. They are:

    • Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) – Sunscreen with several suspected human health effects.

    • Butylparaben - Preservative with several suspected human health effects.

    • Octinoxate (Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate) - Sunscreen with several suspected human health effects.

    • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC) - Sunscreen with several suspected human health effects. Allowed in Europe and Canada, not in USA or Japan.

  • Up to 10% of the world's coral reefs may be threatened by sunscreen induced coral bleaching.

Other factors such as global warming, pollution, and human activities are likely a far greater threat to coral reefs than sunscreens. However, that is not a reason to ignore the results of this research. There has been limited criticism of this study(1) but it is good peer-reviewed science, and the results should be taken seriously. Anyone swimming or snorkeling in the tropcial ocean near coral should consider using a coral reef safe sunscreen.


Are Badger's Sunscreens Reef Safe?

Coral Reef Safe Sunscreens

There is a "Reef Safe" test that can be performed on sunscreens, and we considered it, but they test on fish, not on coral. We chose to forgo this test because it doesn't measure any impact on coral whatsoever. Furthermore, it would actually be in violation of our Leaping Bunny No Animal Testing pledge. We believe our sunscreens do not have a negative impact on coral reefs for a few reasons. Badger sunscreens do not contain any of the ingredients shown to harm coral, all have been tested and proven to be biodegradable and most are water resistant. The only active ingredient, Zinc Oxide, is a powdered mineral that will settle to the seafloor within a few hours(2), like silt, and become buried in the sediment. The base of our water resistant sunscreens (inactive ingredients that make up 77-88%) is made of USDA Certified Organic plant oils, beeswax and vitamin E. These are all biodegradable and safe for any environment.


What can you do to ensure that your sunscreen is safe for the marine environment and coral reefs?

  • Use a sunscreen that does not have the ingredients shown to damage coral in Dr. Danovaro's research (see above). Badger sunscreens do not contain any of these ingredients.

  • Use a water resistant sunscreen. This helps it to stay on your body and out of the water. Learn more about water resistant sunscreen.

  • Use a sunscreen that has been tested biodegradable. This claim is largely under regulated, so you may need to contact the company to verify their claim. This ensures that the product will break down in the environment. Learn more about biodegradable sunscreen.

  • Reef safe claims on sunscreen labels are unregulated and therefore potentially meaningless. You really have to look at the ingredients and judge for yourself.

 

Additional Reading:

National Park Service recommends use of mineral sunscreens to protect coral.

Scuba Diver Life recommends use of mineral sunscreens to protect coral.

National Geographic recommends use of mineral sunscreens to protect coral.


(1) SPF: Sun Protection Facts or Fictions?

(2) Using Stoke's Law and the following variables (particle diameter = 6.88µm; particle density = 5606kg/m3; seawater density = 1025kg/m3) we calculate a settling rate of 48cm/hr or about a foot and a half per hour.