“Reef-Safe” Definition and what it actually means

By Hanna Oltmanns - May 31, 2024

"At Suntribe being transparent about our products, their ingredient lists, their safety, and their certifications is one of the core values of our brand. "

There has been a lot of talk about reef-safe sunscreens. Many brands in the sunscreen industry have used the term “Reef Safe” as a buzzword to sell products and give their sun care a green label to boost their sales. These issues have been made known by the media for the last two years extensively, and it made it very clear that “Reef Safe” is a term that is simply not defined enough.

Yet, it ranks among the top five claims with the highest increase in average monthly search volume, meaning it is a key phrase to discuss in the sunscreen industry. 

At Suntribe being transparent about our products, their ingredient lists, their safety, and their certifications is one of the core values of our brand. We believe this is the only way that we can offer effective sunscreen products that you can trust. For this reason, we decided to write a post about how we at Suntribe define “Reef Safe” and what it means when you read it on our sunscreen packaging-

How is “Reef-Safe” generally defined?

How Suntribe Defines Reef-Safe

Google defines “Reef-Safe” sunscreens as sunscreens that do not contain chemical UV filters such as Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. This definition was birthed when Hawaii started to ban chemical UV filters from their reefs, after research has shown that these two chemical UV filters in particular have caused coral bleaching and have been revealed as endorphin disruptors.

Renowned scientists such as Craig Downs, PhD, found their research results highly alarming and took action by getting their government to ban the use of sunscreens containing these chemicals.

“The number one ingredient that we would see was Oxybenzone. We took water samples and then we measured the amount of Oxybenzone in the water, and we were stunned by how high the concentrations were.” 

— Craig Downs, PhD

How Suntribe Defines Reef Safe

After Hawaii took action, places like the US Virgin Islands, Bonaire, Palau, and Thailand followed suit in banning toxic sunscreen chemicals to protect their reefs, corals and aquatic life. 

However, not including chemical UV filters such as Oxybenzone and Octinoxate in sunscreens is only the tip of the iceberg and far from enough when it comes to producing “Reef-Safe” sunscreens. 

Since the sunscreen ban in Hawaii, research has revealed several additional chemical active (such as UV filters) and inactive sunscreen ingredients (for example preservatives) to be toxic to both humans and the environment.

As research evolved, sunscreen brands labelling their products as “Reef Safe” needed to withdraw from the term “Reef Safe” in their marketing communication.

Brands like Bondi Sands, Banana Boat and Edgewell Personal Care, are among companies that have faced lawsuits for reef-related claims as continued research revealed they still used harmful ingredients in their products affecting reefs.

The simple avoidance of Oxybenzone and Octinoxate is clearly not enough to create a “Reef-Safe” product!

What does current research say about the safety of UV-filters for coral reefs?

There has been ongoing research to assess the safety and effectiveness of various chemical UV filters. This includes studying their potential to cause skin irritations, allergic reactions, hormone disruption, or environmental harm. 

Research has shown that 63% of ingredients in the most popular sunscreens in Europe are classified as dangerous for human health and/or the environment. 

UV filters such as Oxybenzone, Octinoxate and Octocrylene have been confirmed as toxic for corals

Active ingredients such as Homosalate, Octisalate, and Octocrylene have been linked to impairing the growth of marine wildlife, causing birth defects in humans and fish, and accumulating in the brain and liver of zebrafish.

How Suntribe Defines Reef-Safe

Craig Downs, PhD, who we already mentioned above, is a renowned scientist and Executive Director at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. He and his team have been researching sunscreen ingredients for almost two decades and strongly advocated the chemical sunscreen ban that Hawaii implemented in 2021. 

They compiled a list of ingredients that are known pollutants which everybody should be aware of and completely avoid. They call it the HEL list. It started off as scientific literature about the dangers of Oxybenzone and Octocrylene. Now the list includes 13 common sunscreen ingredients based on the latest research. As the science on sunscreen chemicals increases, so does the list.

We at Suntribe formulate all our products based on the latest state of research and in close reference to marine biologists, such as Craig Downs, PhD.

As research is evolving, so do our sunscreens, and as scientific results adjust, so do our products.

“Reef-Safe” is more than a green ingredient list!

When we talk about “Reef-Safe” sunscreen, we need to talk about more than just the ingredient list at the back of the tube. “Reef Safe” means more than only a “green” ingredient list.

A product can only be truly “Reef-Safe” if the packaging, sourcing, and manufacturing are all done with sustainability in mind. Reasons for poor coral health and endangered marine life are multifaceted. Too often, customers are misled with words that are a simplification of concepts that are not simple. 

In 2019, Craig Downs told Hawaii Public Radio: “Sunscreen pollution is about one of 100 to 1000 cuts a coral reef can experience, and it’s really location dependent.” Unrelated to sunscreen ingredients, he highlighted excessive pollution and agricultural run-off as two significant threats to Hawaii’s coral reefs.

As we mentioned before, transparency is the way we do business at Suntribe.

“With transparency comes confidence and safety. At Suntribe we know we can trust our products, and we’d like to show you why you can trust our products too.”

— Julia, Suntribe Co-Founder & Head of Product Development

We want to make it easy for everyone to see the steps we take to develop and produce our sunscreens. From choosing our production facilities, to selecting and sourcing our ingredients, and developing our skin care. We consider the impact of our labels, packaging and printed material, of the shipping and logistics behind the scene as well as the transportation of our products to their consumers. We consider the impact of our sunscreens on nature from all aspects.

For us, the term “Reef Safe” is more than a buzzword!

How Suntribe Defines Reef-Safe

How do we at Suntribe define “Reef-Safe” Sunscreen?

Whilst we understand that nothing is 100% reef safe, and that research is continuously revealing new potential threats to marine life, you can be sure that we formulate our products hand in hand with the latest scientific results.

The Suntribe definition of “Reef-Safe” is much stricter than the definition that other brands apply.

The general definition of the term “Reef-Safe” is a negative one, defining which ingredients a sunscreen should NOT contain to be “Reef-Safe”.

We chose to define our sunscreens by using a positive definition.

We define “Reef-Safe” by only using UV-filters with the highest safety rating for humans and nature.

At Suntribe, we use natural, mineral UV-filters without nanoparticles that have been shown to be the safest option that is currently available for marine life and human health and are recommended by marine scientists such as Craig Downs, PhD.

How Suntribe Defines Reef-Safe

Want to continue reading?