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What is “Reef Safe” and Why is New Heights Naturals Involved?

The New York Times reports that an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen is believed to be deposited into oceans annually, with the greatest damage happening in the popular reef areas of both Hawaii and the Caribbean (Glusac, 2018). 90% of snorkeling and diving tourism is concentrated on only 10% of the world’s reefs (Be Reef Safe)

During our time at IBE Dallas, reef safe and the ban on certain chemical sunscreens in Hawaii was a huge topic of discussion. If you aren’t familiar with these buzzwords, reef-safe sunscreens refer to mineral-based SPFs that contain ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

On May 3, The New York Times published an article titled “Hawaii Passes Bill Banning Sunscreen That Can Harm Coral Reefs.” This bill, passed on May 1, makes Hawaii the first state to ban the sale of sunscreen containing chemicals believed to harm coral reefs. Awaiting the governor’s signature, the new rules banning oxybenzone and octinoxate go into effect January 1, 2021 (Glusac, 2018).

The Science Behind the Legislation

A 2008 research study published in Environmental Health Perspectives titled “Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections” concluded that these sunscreens potentially play an important role in coral bleaching in areas prone to high levels of recreational use by humans (Danavaro et al., 2008). Read: Hawaii and the Caribbean. Even at extremely low concentrations, sunscreens cause the rapid and complete bleaching or hard corals. This study looked at seven of the most common ingredients in mainstream sunscreens: benzophenone-3; butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane; ethylhexylmethoxycinnamate; octocrylene; ethylhexyl salicylate; 4-methylbenzylidene camphor; butylparaben. Ultimatley, the study concluded that the bleaching was due to these ultraviolet filters, which induce a viral cycle in species with latent infections (Danavaro et al., 2008).

“Impact of sunscreen addition on nubbins of Acropora. Untreated (brown) and treated (bleached) nubbins of (A) Acropora cervicornis (Caribbean Sea, Mexico); (B) Acropora divaricata (Celebes Sea, Indonesia); (C) Acropora sp. (Red Sea, Egypt); and (D) Acropora intermedia (Andaman Sea, Thailand). Images were taken within 62 hr of the start of sunscreen incubations.” (Danavaro et al., 2008).

In the Spring of 2005, Craig Downs, Ph.D., a forensic ecotoxicologist in Virgina, was called by the Natural Park Service regarding the Trunk Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands. What was killing of their coral reefs? A local comment helped shed insight--”It’s the tourists.” Over 2-5,000 people visited that beach per day, and upon leaving, the surface of the water looked like a oil spill. And sure enough, what did the samples reveal? The chemicals in sunscreen, generously applied by snorkelers, divers, and beachgoers had washed off in the water (Molvar, 2017). Besides its role as an endocrine disruptor, oxybenzone can also damage coral DNA and lead to what Dr. Downs refers to as “reef zombies”--corals that look healthy, but are actually sterile and dead. This means that ultimately, they cannot reproduce (Molvar, 2017). And of course it’s not just the Virgin Islands. About 90 percent of the reefs in the Caribbean have disappeared since 1980 (Molvar, 2017).

This impact does not only affect the coral reefs, but also the wildlife that relies on it. While no type of sunscreen has been scientifically proven to be reef-friendly, mineral sunscreens have not yet been found to harm corals, according to the National Park Service (Hrustic, 2018). And for all who are concerned with this legislation, NYC-based board-certified dermatologist Joshua Zeichner, M.D. confirms that mineral-based sunscreens are just as effective as chemical sunscreens (Miller, 2018).

New Heights Naturals' Commitment

At New Heights Naturals, we believe that our oceans are a resource worth preserving for our children and our children's children. We made sure that our products are safe for our kids as well as our planet.

Additional Resources:

For more information about the legislation and how you can help, visit the Be Reef Safe Initiative at

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