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Protecting skin and reef

Brands react to a ban on certain reef-damaging chemicals in sunscreen.

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Ever since Hawaii banned sunscreens with coral reef-damaging chemicals earlier this summer, there’s been a new focus on all-natural alternatives.

Solar Goo by Green Goo
Green Goo is a small skincare company based out of Lyons, Colorado.Louisa Albanese

At Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2018, there were quite a few brands with “reef-safe,” “reef-friendly,” and “oxybenzone-free” labels on product bottles, including Joshua Tree, All Good, Green Goo, and Bare Republic, among others.

Oxybenzone has gotten a lot of negative press lately because of Hawaii’s ban on sunscreens that use it as the active ingredient (the ban takes effect in 2021). It’s been shown to bleach reefs, and it can be absorbed into your body through your skin, potentially causing health problems. Along with a few other common sunscreen chemicals, oxybenzone is a known endocrine disrupter, said Dr. Craig Downs, executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. That means it can mess with your hormone production. Research has also shown that it can cause birth defects, he said.

It’s key to note, however that there’s no official or universal definition of what “reef-safe” means. Downs’s lab created a “Protect Land and Sea” certification in 2016 to indicate whether a product has one of 11 components known to be harmful to reefs and/or humans, but not a single sunscreen formula that has applied for certification has passed. Even natural mineral sunscreens that don’t have these ingredients in their formulas are contaminated with traces of oxybenzone and other chemicals on the “HEL List” that leech from plastic packaging, holding containers, or mixing drums in factories.

Brands that have failed the certification test are working to isolate points of contamination and, in some cases, going back to the old-fashioned ways of storing and mixing ingredients, Downs said.

Michelle Curry, a salve maker for Green Goo, said the brand mixes its “Solar Goo” sunscreen—and all its other products—by hand at their Lyons, Colorado, facility. Green Goo has not had Solar Goo tested by the Haereticucs lab, but the brand said it sources ingredients as sustainably as possible, and keeps its sunscreen formula simple. Its ingredient list is just seven components: organic coconut oil; calendula flowers; sunflower oil; shea butter; non-nano, uncoated zinc oxide; beeswax; and non-GMO Vitamin E.

“It protects you from the sun and feeds your skin at the same time,” Curry said. “You could eat every single one of our products and be just fine.”

As research evolves, sunscreen makers like Aloe Up have responded accordingly to remove less desirable ingredients from their formulas, said Paul Krueger, national sales representative for Aloe Up. The brand advertises its products as reef-friendly and biodegradable, though it does contain small amounts of avobenzone and octocrylene.

“Retailers need to pay attention to the ingredients on the back of the products they’re selling, so they can help customers understand the issue,” said Caroline Duell, founder of Safe Sunscreen Council.

Skip the Slather

The Haereticus Environmental Lab has identified these 13 components,
known as the “HEL List,” as harmful to reefs:

  • Microplastic spheres or beads
  • Nanoparticles, including zinc oxide and titanium dioxide (look instead for “non-nano” formulas)
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Octocrylene
  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Methyl Paraben
  • Ethyl Paraben
  • Propyl Paraben
  • Butyl Paraben
  • Benzyl Paraben
  • Triclosan

This article was originally published in Day 4 of The Daily (summer 2018).