The term ‘reef safe’ has become a popular phrase in the sunscreen industry, as concerns about the harmful effects of certain sunscreen ingredients on coral reefs have grown. However, the definition of "reef safe" remains somewhat ambiguous, leaving its meaning and credibility unclear.
Defining Reef Safe
While some brands adopt the terminology and claim that their products have no impact on reef ecosystems, others argue that ‘reef safe’ should only be used for products that have been thoroughly tested and proven to be safe for marine life in various situations. Currently, there is no universal certification or test for ‘reef safe’ products, and brands must spend large sums of money for independent testing, which raises concerns about the validity of such widespread claims.
The history of ‘reef safe’ can be traced back in the 2010s when studies revealed the detrimental effects of oxybenzone and octinoxate on coral reefs. In response, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing these chemicals in 2018. This decision sparked a movement towards ‘reef safe’ sunscreens, prompting many brands to reformulate their product without these two ingredients and subsequently adopt the term ‘reef safe’.
While no sunscreen has been proven to be completely ‘reef safe,’ those with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide (which are natural mineral ingredients) are considered by far the safest option. However, it is important to question whether zinc products labelled as ‘reef safe’ truly have zero impact on the reef, or simply exclude ingredients that have been proven harmful.
The lack of comprehensive research on the effects of many sunscreen ingredients, including zinc oxide, on coral reefs makes it challenging to definitively determine the credibility of all reef-safe claims. One aspect to consider is the use of nano vs non-nano zinc where concerns have arisen about the use of nano-sized zinc oxide particles, which are so small that they could potentially penetrate coral tissue, but studies are not conclusive.
Firstly, what is Nano and Non-Nano zinc?
Nano and Non-Nano refer to the size of particles used in a sunscreen. It’s important to understand that the EU, FDA and Australia define a product as being ‘nano’ in different ways. One product that uses exactly the same type of zinc might claim to be non nano, but be found to contain nano zinc depending on the definition used.
Most brands will conveniently use the definition that suits their marketing goals best, and this tends to lean towards brands claiming that their products are non-nano, as there has been some concern regarding nanoparticles crossing the skin barrier, and being ingested by coral. There is no governing body able to certify a product as “non-nano” or to regulate who is making legitimate claims and who is not. This leaves us in a very tricky position.
To explain it simply, any brand (including Winki Zinc) that claims their zinc is “invisible”, “sheer” or “rubs in clear” is using a type of zinc that can be defined as both nano and non nano depending on the definition used. This type of zinc has been ground down into nanoparticles or micro particles, but when formulated into a product, these particles bond together to form larger particles (agglomerates) rendering the product "non nano". The only true non nano products are the ones that leave a distinctly white, chalky appearance on the skin.
Reef Conscious: A More Accurate Term
Given the uncertainties that still surround many components of sunscreens, we at Winki Zinc prefer the term ‘reef conscious’ to ‘reef safe.’ This approach acknowledges the efforts to minimise harm to coral reefs while also recognising the need for further research on the long-term effects of various sunscreen ingredients.
Put simply, our zinc formula excludes known harmful ingredients and consists of only nine ingredients that are as close to natural as possible. In fact, we believe our products are even better for the environment than many natural sunscreens that claim to be reef safe, due to our unique plastic free packaging. However, due to the lack of research on different ingredients, zinc oxide included, we choose to err on the side of caution and avoid making absolute claims such as ‘reef safe.’
We speak in complete honesty & transparency, and this means talking about things that other brands choose to gloss over. It might be uncomfortable at times, but we believe you have the right to understand these issues as consumers.