Let’s start with the fact that the United States and its territories are approximately 4 million acres of the sea floor including Pacific Ocean, Gulf of Mexico, Atlantic Ocean, and Caribbean Sea. The Hawaiian Island chain is home to more than 60% of the nation’s coral reefs. Florida is the third largest barrier reef in the world but Caribbean Islands coral reefs has been devastated by global and local stressors (https://www.epa.gov/coral-reefs/americas-coral-reefs), as have the Pacific Islands.
What is “Reef Safe”?
The terms “reef safe” and “reef friendly” are not regulated, it's marketing, but what sunscreen companies are referring to are the chemical blocks, specifically Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. Two locations that have banned these chemicals are: Hawaii and Florida accounting for approximately 80% of the coral reef in the USA.
Is Sunscreen killing the reefs? How can I make sure I don’t harm the reef when I’m swimming?
The best way to protect the reefs, is don’t go swimming in the reefs. Human beings and their own personal skin microbiome with a thousand bacterial species, the products people use on their skin/hair (shampoos, moisturizers including sunscreen) and touching/kicking the reef are hazardous to this sensitive environment.
The “major” issue in regard to coral bleaching goes back, as Scientists in 1970 notice Coral bleaching was occurring due to a minor increase in ocean water temperature. Dr. Jokiel noticed a new factory was pouring hot water into the ocean, increasing the temperature by 1.2 degrees and it was bleaching the reefs. Water temperatures raising all over the planet showed the same issue in the 80's, '90s and 2000s globally BUT in the last few years, the blame is now on sunscreen; Oxybenzone and Octinoxate being the biggest culprits. Global pollution, coastal develop, overfishing that’s the issue.
ARE ANY SUNSCREENS TRULY REEF SAFE? REEF FRIENDLY?
Simple answer is NO!
The problem today is all the misinformation we continue to receive, as the truth is NONE of the sunscreens or humans for that matter or “reef safe” or “reef friendly”. We've heard about the chemicals but what about the minerals?
IF, Zinc and Titanium are physical blocks “minerals” (which they are in original form), then they are minerals and DON’T biodegrade, even though they are marketed by some sunscreen companies as biodegradable. As minerals, they actually bio-accumulate and build a sunscreen layer on the coral, or if these "minerals" are nano-sized (100,000 times smaller than found in nature), the coral is ingesting these minerals? But, then I question them as minerals, as the procedure to make Zinc and Titanium into something that can be used in skin care involves a chemical process and the resulting chemicals are Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide, so chemical? or mineral?
It has been noted that Titanium dioxide reacts with UV light to produce strong reactive oxygen species (ROS), which can cause significant cellular damage in plant cells. It also bioaccumulates within many plant species.
Zinc oxide, can release free molecules of Zn, which are toxic to the root systems of some plants (Lin and Xing, 2007). Zinc oxide is also toxic to certain bacteria and crustaceans and it, like titanium dioxide, readily bioaccumulates and causes toxicity in freshwater fish.
As for the chemicals in sunscreen, they actually do biodegrade, some take longer than others.
The latest ban announced in the Florida Keys had a statement: “We have one reef, and we have to do one small thing to protect that. It’s our obligation,” said Mayor Teri Johnston.
I believe Mayor Teri Johnston is correct and I think we should limit the exposure to the reef, wear UV apparel and as much as we love the reef, we love the humans (sometimes), so wear whatever sunscreen to protect yourself, that they allow you to wear. But know none of them are “reef safe or friendly”.
We all have choices and need the "correct" information to make a decision. I believe it’s best to find a product that you like to wear and “reapply” and IF you are going to be near or in the reef, DON’T wear a sunscreen that is perceived to be more harmful than others, choose UV apparel.