Today, ocean conservationists are aware of the damaging effects that sunscreen has on our seas — especially near coral reefs. Chemicals like oxybenzone in sunscreen are now known to be toxic to coral and fish. There is no law (yet) forbidding these chemicals from being dumped into our seas.
We’ve written an entire guide to reef-safe sunscreens. One of the sunscreens we’ve featured is Stream2Sea, a sunscreen that is one of the only ones proven to be safe for coral reefs. Autumn Blum, the founder of Stream2Sea, is here to explain what to look for in a sunscreen, how to use mineral-based sunscreens, and more information on why we should be extra conscientious of what we slather on before jumping into the ocean.
Your product, Stream2Sea, is said to be the only product tested to be truly reef safe. What is the difference between a reef-safe sunscreen and a damaging sunscreen? Is oxybenzone the only chemical that’s harmful, or are there others?
I am very proud to have actually tested our products to be safe for us and safe for our waters. Before launching Stream2Sea, I made the conscious decision to test our products on freshwater fish, saltwater fish and coral larvae. This was a very difficult decision for me, because I am adamantly against animal testing. Yet, here I am testing on fish and coral. That is because there is no laboratory standard yet created to show what is truly reef safe. I learned during the initial trials that just because something is safe for us does not mean that it is safe for our reefs.
Reef safety has become an important topic and, unfortunately, a sales tactic resulting in marketing fluff. Testing is very expensive and Oxybenzone is one of the few chemical ingredients that has been proven to be toxic to coral larvae and other species.
Even so, it is believed by many toxicologists that numerous endocrine disrupting cosmetic chemicals will also be toxic. They just haven’t been tested yet. I’ve seen several unscrupulous companies marketing sunscreens as ‘reef safe’ that include endocrine disruptors, just because they don’t contain oxybenzone (and even some that do contain oxybenzone)! It is imperative to know the ingredients in the product you use and not just trust what is written on the front of a bottle. We have a convenient ingredients to avid card that lists known and suspected eco toxins available for download on our website: Ingredients to Avoid.
I hope that one day, intelligent scientists will develop a laboratory tissue model that will tell us when a product is safe for the reefs. Until then, I believe it is impossible to really know if a product will be reef safe without testing.
What inspired you to create Stream2Sea?
I love the ocean. I love being on the ocean, in the ocean and under the ocean. My parents say that I learned how to swim before I could walk, and the day I learned how to breathe underwater was the day I fell in love with SCUBA. It was my super power!
I became a NAUI scuba dive when I was 14, and dove as much as I could as a kid. Then I went off to college, became a cosmetic chemist and started a business. There was no time (or money) for diving for many years. In 2009, I sold my business and started diving again. I was diving in Palau when I first thought about how our sunscreens and personal care products might be affecting our coral reefs.
I was making a slow ascent to the surface after a gorgeous dive when I saw a rainbow coming off a group of snorkelers. I realized it wasn’t a rainbow, but was an oil slick coming off their bodies.
When I got on the boat, I grabbed the nearest bottle of sunscreen and read the ingredients. I knew there wasn’t a health food store in the world that would sell this product. The ingredients weren’t safe for our bodies, let alone for our reefs. I obsessed over this concept for the rest of the trip. What was in the shampoo I was using? What was in the conditioner she was using? What sunscreen were you using?
I knew when I got home that I needed to develop a line of sunscreens and body care products that were safe for us and safe for our reefs. What I didn’t know was how challenging it would be to do it!
Do you see sunscreens that are marketed as reef-safe — but are really not?
Oh yeah! Retailers and manufacturers are jumping on the reef safe bandwagon. I went to Hawaii and saw shelves of chemical based sunscreens promoted as reef safe just because they didn’t contain oxybenzone. Many contain avobenzone. Although no one has spent the money yet to prove that avobenzone is toxic, how different do you really think avobenzone is from oxybenzone?
Reef safe claims on sunscreen labels are potentially meaningless as they are currently unregulated. Chemical ingredients including oxybenzone and clear zinc, both found in sunscreens labeled “reef safe”, have actually been proven unsafe to the environment in several recent studies. Consumers need to be educated to read ingredient labels, and should rely on companies that are testing and providing the testing results to ensure that they are truly safe.
Can you give us some advice on how to apply mineral sunscreen? It’s a bit harder to rub in than your typical sunscreen, right? Does the white film come off with regular soap and water?
This is a great question and one of our biggest challenges with Stream2Sea! You have to apply a mineral sunscreen differently than the sunscreens you might be used to using. Many mineral sunscreens are oil based, which make them easier to rub in. I cant use those products as they make me greasy and I break out. Stream2Sea is drier and harder to rub in, but once you learn how, it’s quite easy.
I always recommend applying in front of a mirror the first time. I start with a pea sized amount and rub into the palm of my hands. I then press my hands onto my face and blend. I then do the same thing to my chest, then my shoulders, etc. You should see a white mineral sheen that fades about 50% within 15 minutes or so.
It takes a little more work to apply properly, but once you do, it will feel light on the skin, non greasy, will not run, will never burn your eyes, and most importantly is safe for you and our reefs. Be sure to reapply every 80 minutes or when you come out of the water. Even in playing in the water all day, chances are you will still see it on your skin in the evening. A little soap and water, and it comes right off.