Why we don’t use the claim “reef-safe”

While our Silk SPF  has a ton of great qualities (think hydrating and lightweight!), one thing it doesn’t have is the “reef-safe” claim. We made this decision for a few reasons, the biggest being that we’re always striving to be transparent and upfront with our customers. And when it comes to the term “reef-safe”— which is most often used to describe sunscreen formulations free of certain chemicals linked to the damage of coral reefs—it’s anything but upfront. In fact, reef-safe can be thrown around without actually being any better for the environment—or your skin. Here, we explain why.

Problem 1: Reef-safe is an unregulated term

Just like the terms “clean,” “natural,” and “eco-friendly,” there’s no given standard or third-party regulation of the claim “reef-safe.” And while, historically, the term has been used (by us included!) to describe mineral sunscreens, that’s not entirely accurate—more on that below.

Problem 2: The studies done don’t show real-life levels of SPF filters.

Yes, research has shown that SPF filters may damage coral reefs. But critical reviews of that data have found that much of the research—and therefore its conclusions—are flawed. One such review in Environmental Toxicology and Chemistry discovered a number of gaps in testing, such as inaccurate readings of the concentration of sunscreen ingredients, lack of data verification, and the absence of a realistic environmental situation that do not mimic actual sunscreen application in real life!

Another review in Environmental Assessment and Management concluded the need for a closer study of sunscreen filter toxicity, research into long-term consequences, and a better understanding of the actual damage done. All to say: It’s hard to assess risk when the risk itself is still TBD, which is where the current evidence falls short.

Problem 3: All sunscreen filters can damage coral reefs

While oxybenzone and octinoxate are typically blamed for harming coral reefs, the reality is that all sunscreen filters, even zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, can damage coral reefs and other marine life at high levels—as one study in Environmental Science Technology found.

The key phrase there, by the way? “At high levels,” which tend to be much higher than what’s used in real life. Even if swimmers, surfers, and beachgoers were to slather on sunscreen from head to toe—already not realistic for many—it’s unlikely that they would ever still reach the concentration of chemical filters found in these studies.

This being said, the filters we do currently use, we will continue to monitor research that comes out on SPF products’ impact on coral reef safety.

TLDR: you should still wear a water resistant SPF when swimming in the ocean, and/or wear UV protectant clothing (head to toe!). Ultimately, the existing research does not translate to what’s actually happening when sunscreen is introduced to the ocean from humans at normal levels. More research needs to be done here and we are looking forward to the National Academy of Sciences study that is being released in June by a group of independent scientists (we will update everyone at that time!).

And, in the meantime, we should all move away from using and looking for “reef-safe” products, knowing there are plenty of holes in this claim—and remember to wear sunscreen!