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reef safe sunscreen

Reef Safe Sunscreens and the Hawaii Ban

What Does Reef Safe Mean and All About the Hawaii Ban

We’ve been fielding a lot of questions as of late as to our perspective on the recent Hawaii ban. It’s such a definitive action in an industry where regulations move so languidly and industry is often left to self-regulate.

There is no question that for the most part, the ban in Hawaii on oxybenzone and octinoxate is a good thing.  This is coming from us as a zinc oxide sunscreen provider that has a formula that contains octinoxate.  We’ll get to that important detail.  However, we’ve been beating a drum against oxybenzone since the creation of our company. Some might say it was one of the reasons we started our company. Certainly a sunscreen that is defined as ‘safe enough for a pregnant woman to use’ will never include one formulated with oxybenzone so it is refreshing to see the first piece of definitive legislation come out against it.

Having said that, there is no question that the Hawaii decision is also partially political in nature.  If it was merely science-led, then the data against for reef degradation is limited to oxybenzone.  There is substantial reason to condemn oxybenzone with respect to coral bleaching or what is otherwise known as the ossification of coral. It’s been shown to be toxic to the symbiotic organisms that co-habitate with coral, and are essential to its existence. It’s also beens shown to impede the corals ability to fight of viral infection and withstand rising water temperatures as part of global warming.  It’s the characteristics of oxybenzone that are most likely the cause for these adverse effects.  It’s a filter of small molecular weight, less than half the size of a nanometer (compared to nano zinc oxide which is typically 70-100+ nanometers in size). It is photo reactive and breaks down in sunlight to create Reactive Oxygen Species. It’s been shown repeatedly to permeate human tissue and there is considerable evidence that points to its role as an endocrine disruptor.  It’s reasonable to extrapolate that this toxicity to the larvae within the reefs is a similar biological response, some form of hormone disruption on a larger scale.

The inclusion of octinoxate is curious in the sense that it’s a form of a half step.  There is limited science in terms of directly correlating the same coral bleaching to octinoxate, however, it is reasonable to extrapolate it might have a similar effect based on very similar shared characteristics with oxybenzone. Both conventional octinoxate and oxybenzone are of small molecular weight, photo reactive and potential endocrine disruptors.  However, so are other organic/carbon based filters like avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and more.  In fact, avobenzone is even more similar to oxybenzone in that they share the similar chemical structure of a benzene ring.  The same structure that means in a chemistry lab they would be handled with care under a chemical hood and with significant handling measures to prevent contact.  However, these other filters were not included. It’s reasonable to ask why?  It’s most likely a case of where the precautionary principle butts against practical limitations.  You can imagine how weighty a ban would be if it included most organic based filters.  With skin cancer still on the rise, it would also be difficult to limit sunscreen options where 95% of available ones still include these organic filters.

On Encapsulated Octinoxate

I know some might read our questioning of the ban as part of a vested interest as our formula Every Morning Sun Whip SPF 25 contains encapsulated octinoxate.  Although this ban does not allow for any exceptions and this means that users cannot bring this formula to Hawaii shorelines, we feel all others can feel confident in its every day use.  We would never consider using conventional octinoxate for all of the reasons we listed above.  We feel it can be blackballed for the same reasons we would forgo oxybenzone.

Encapsulation remains an innovative solution or work around to the issues with these small molecular weight filters.  The octinoxate we use is doped in a silica bead (which is derived from sand), making it roughly the size of 5-7 microns, meaning it’s 10,000 to 14,000 times larger than conventional octinoxate.  It therefore cannot permeate living tissue, either human or animal. The octinoxate does not come into contact with the tissue or coral itself as it remains within the silica bead. This is how encapsulated octinoxate does not have the same issue with photo-allergy that often plagues conventional octinoxate.

The process of encapsulation turns these small problematic filters into large particles, similar in characteristics to zinc oxide and other minerals.  It’s unfortunate that it has not been more commonly used in the industry but it’s lack of use relates more to cost and formulation challenges and not its intrinsic merit.

Implications of the ban

The most immediate implications will be that consumers will see more and more of the label claim ‘reef safe’.  However, the term is not regulated in terms of what it means and most likely will never be regulated.  A quick Google search for ‘reef safe sunscreens’ returns a whole host of options, some of which include formulas with oxybenzone.  As is customary for this industry, consumers are going to have to be educated label readers.

Formulas containing high concentrations of zinc oxide remain the most prudent choice for consumers.  We encourage consumers to look for sunscreen providers who are credible and know the science behind their offerings.  Consumers should also look to other sun safety measures while on holiday like the use of sun protective clothing.

There is a path forward for consumers to be both health and environmentally conscious and we as a company, The Sunscreen Company TM, will continue in our efforts to lead the way.