June 1, 2019 was the first World Reef Day. To draw attention to the decline of coral reefs worldwide. Biggest culprit: humans. And an important enemy for the coral reef: sun protection products and day creams with synthetic filters such as oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3) and octinoxate (ethylhexyl methoxynnamate or octyl methoxycinnamate), which affect the coral's natural defenses. Other synthetic UV filters don't seem very good for the coral either: Avobenzone, octocrylene, ecamsule and also oxybenzone have been shown to be carcinogenic in research. A filter such as homosalate disrupts the hormone system and is broken down by sunlight into harmful by-products. If that's true for humans, the question is how safe they are for marine life...
Of course, you can stay out of the sun or put on sun-protective clothing on the beach so you don't need sun protection products, but that's not an option for many of us. By choosing a coral-safe sun protection product, you can do your part to save the coral. But what should you pay attention to when choosing?
How can a sunscreen damage coral?
Synthetic filters can bleach the coral. The two components that play a major role in this are oxybenzone and octinoxate. Both protect the skin against UV rays, but when they enter the water they can overwhelm the coral's natural defenses. This makes it easy for the coral to bleach and stunt growth. In addition, the coral is more sensitive to influences such as changes in water temperature, acidification, pollution and diseases.
As described above, there are also filters that are, for example, endocrine-disrupting and/or carcinogenic. If that is not good for humans, then it is probably not good for the coral and the fish that live in and around the coral.
When is a sun protector coral safe?
The safest sun protection products are pure products, with a large proportion of organic ingredients or ingredients from untouched nature. Ingredients that nature already knows, so in principle can do no harm. Products without synthetic filters or other 'unnatural' chemical additives (including preservatives that your skin and the sea do not like).
Safe non-synthetic filters
The most commonly used non-synthetic filters are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These reflect UV radiation. Zinc oxide appears to be the safest. It protects against the entire spectrum of UVA and UVB radiation. The disadvantage of these filters is that they can give a 'white haze' on your skin. The reason many brands use nano versions of zinc or titanium dioxide. These do not give a white cast, but research shows that they are not safe!
Nanoparticles are particles smaller than 100 nanometers. These can penetrate the coral and lead to harmful effects. This also includes coated nanoparticles. These are nanoparticles that are linked to another ingredient, so that together they assume a non-nano size. However, these particles can become detached in the water, so that the nanoparticle still ends up in the (marine) environment. Nano titanium dioxide can also cause a harmful photocatalysis reaction on the skin. You can read in the ingredients list whether a brand contains nanoparticles. A brand is obliged to report this.
Safe synthetic filters?
Synthetic filters that initially seem safe include Mexoryl sx - Terephthalylidene Dicamphor Sulfonic Acid - (see the EWG site ) - but there are also studies that do not consider this filter completely safe . Tinosorb S or Escalol S and Tinosorb M are photostable UV filters that are not absorbed by the skin. And don't seem to work endocrine disrupting. Allowed in Europe and Australia, not (yet) approved for use in the USA. But according to the EWG worth a closer look.
It is still difficult to say whether these filters are really safe for humans and coral, because relatively little research is available on this subject. Tinosorb M is suspected to be ecotoxic - harmful to the environment. The Tinosorb filters are not yet allowed in the USA. The American FDA, which must approve new filters, is not yet convinced of their safety , based on information provided by the manufacturer BASF. But it is also said that compared to the EU or Australia, the FDA is super slow with the approval process of new filters. Jetske Ultee made a handy overview of synthetic sunscreens in 2017 - some of this information may already be outdated as studies into healthier sunscreens are in full swing.
Also pay attention to other ingredients
Synthetic filters and nanoparticles are not the only ingredients to look out for when choosing a coral safe sun protection product. Many products contain questionable preservatives and/or a (high content of) synthetic perfume substances. The question is whether they are good for marine life.
Reef Safe choice
Unfortunately, many sun protection brands are not really 'Reef Safe' yet. If you want to help the coral reef, make a 'Reef Safe' choice yourself. Choose a brand with as many natural ingredients as possible. And with uncoated, non-nano zinc oxide as a filter, possibly mixed with non-nano, non-coated titanium dioxide. Insofar as information is currently available, the chemical filters Tinosorb S, Escalol S and Mexoryl sx also appear to be safe, but little information is yet known about possible (neuro)toxic properties (in the long term). The information available so far comes from the manufacturer itself. All three may be used in a product in a limited concentration from the European Union. Avoid the following filters:
- octyl methoxycinnamate (octinoxate),
- benzophenone-3 and −4, (oxybenzone, sulisobenzone)
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor , (enzacame)
- 3-benzylidene camphor ,
- octocrylene ,
- avobenzone (parcol1789)
- bisdisulizate sodium
- polysilicone - 15
And avoid questionable synthetic preservatives, fragrances, or other ingredients whenever possible. What is not good for your skin is probably not good for the reef. If an ingredient reads on a package as 'Russian for advanced users - a very complicated name - it is often a questionable ingredient.
World Reef Day
To draw extra attention to the decreasing quality of the reef, the first World Reef Day was organized on 1 June 2019. Co-initiators of the World Reef Day are the reef safe sun protection brand Raw Elements and a number of Hawaiian organizations. Both Hawaii and Bonaire have passed a law that from 2021 prohibits the use of sun protection products with UV filters oxybenzone and octinoxate.
World Ocean's Day
World Reef Day is a new event alongside the broader annual World Ocean's Day on June 8. A 1992 initiative of the Canadian International Center for Ocean Development (ICOD), which was officially recognized by the United Nations in 2008 'to help protect and conserve the world's oceans.'
Given the health risks for humans and the environment of many synthetic filters, new healthy natural alternatives are being searched diligently. Part of it comes from organisms that live in the sea. New developments are explained in an article (July 2018) on PubMed .
It was quite a quest to find real pure brands for INDISHA, without questionable ingredients. Which also left little to no white cast on the skin. But we found some very pure, biological ones: not nano - with mainly zinc oxide as a UVA and UVB filter. Little to no titanium dioxide, 100% natural, largely organic and with nourishing and caring ingredients for the skin. View our range.
Sources: pubmed, ncbi. rawelementsusa, theohmcollection, wikipedia, blog jitske ultee, cosmetic data base site, sciencedirect.com