What is coral reef safe sunscreen?
Google “reef safe” or “ocean safe” and you’ll get more than three million links. Some are for fish that are safe in salt-water tanks with coral but thousands more promote reef safe sunscreens and personal care products that are marketed to be ‘safe’ for coral reefs in the wild.
However, you won’t find Stream2Sea in that long list of hits because we’ve intentionally decided not to use a coral reef safe logo on our labels — even though it’s the primary reason we started this company.
Is anything REALLY coral reef safe?
It’s probably one of the hardest decisions I’ve ever made – and I’ve had a lot of push-back from my marketing team who knows that reef safety is a top consideration for our target audience. But even with all the testing we’ve completed, we still don’t know that anything is really coral reef safe.
Working with the amazing professors and students at my alma mater, Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, we’ve demonstrated that our products are safe for a whole series of species, from the microscopic Caenorhabditis elegans to tank fulls of zebra fish. Next week, we’ll be diving in the Florida Keys with students and scientists from Eckerd and Mote Marine Lab to collect coral larva and test our sunscreens on them.
But that doesn’t even begin to address the whole issue of coral reef safety. For instance, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration recently reported that a common sunscreen ingredient—benzophenone-2, or BP-2—kills juvenile coral and causes coral bleaching. The bleaching, however, doesn’t start with the coral. Four other common ingredients that we would never use—parabens, cinnamates, benzophenones, and camphor derivatives—have been shown to stimulate dormant viral infections in zooxanthellae, the symbiotic algae that live in healthy coral tissue and provide nutrients to the coral via photosynthesis. In the study, the chemicals caused the dormant viruses to grow so quickly that the algae exploded, spreading the viruses to nearby coral reefs.
To me, the term coral reef safe sunscreen implies that it is safe for the entire reef, but how does one know this? You would have to test on things that are not currently testable, or at this point are cost prohibitive to test. Some may do the basic EPA tests for aquatic toxicity on a freshwater minnow, a saltwater minnow, maybe even some algae—but who has tested on phytoplankton? Or the tiny crustaceans and micro-organisms that live within the coral? Or live coral or coral larva?
None that I’m aware of. Yet.
Reef safe sunscreen should mean more than just biodegradable!
Unless I win the lottery – and even then I’m not sure that would be enough money to truly test the incredible number of variables in a reef – there’s no way that we can absolutely know that our products are coral reef safe. That said, I think that my product line is among the safest available today. I’ve tested for biodegradability in fresh and salt water. I’ve looked at the safety data on every single ingredient in every one of the products – including aquatic toxicity data to ensure that we didn’t use any of the ingredients known to cause problems. The testing we’ve already completed far exceeds the required testing and anything our competition has completed. (In fact, we flunked the first toxicity tests using ingredients that are generally considered safe and typically found in other “safe” products – another point that emphasizes how little is known about aquatic toxicity and why I won’t use the term “reef safe.”)
I won’t put a product on the market that doesn’t pass the most intense testing I can manage, while also meeting my standards for human safety as well. This is conscious and, in my opinion, conscientious. This is also why I decided to put EcoConscious on the label instead of reef safe (which I talk about here!), even though I believe we are currently the most reef safe product line available on the market.
Coral larvae testing starts next week. In the meantime, read the ingredients in the product you use: certain ingredients, like octyl methoxycinnamate, oxybenzone, benzophenone-2, or other benzene derivatives are known to harm coral. Don’t use them in our waters.
I thank you for continuing to join us on this journey…because we DO have a choice and we WILL chose to do better. We appreciate your comments, concerns and questions that will help to ensure that we share information that is important to you along the way.
P.S. – Learn more about the Eckerd study with an in-depth article from Bay Soundings at http://baysoundings.com/eckerd-students-push-limits-on-aquatic-toxicity-research/