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February 2019    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 45, No. 2   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Reef Safe Sunscreen Isn’t Safe -- And Its Maker Doesn’t Care

from the February, 2019 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

In our August 2018 issue, we ran a story about sunscreen lotions, noting that scientists have found that one of its common ingredients, oxybenzone, is toxic to coral. So toxic, in fact, that both Hawaii and Palau recently banned any sunscreen with the ingredient, and other jurisdictions are considering it.

Reef Safe, an oxybenzone-based sunscreen manufactured by Tropical Seas, has been heavily marketed to divers as being safe for coral, with claims that the company has a unique manufacturing process. Tropical Seas went so far as to pay Mote Marine Lab to conduct a study -- one that many serious scientists consider invalid and unreliable -- and then published glowing results on its website and in materials marketed to divers and dive stores.

Our August story described that in detail, noting that we had asked Mote this question: "Reef Safe states on its website that 'All Reef Safe SunCare formulas have been proven coral safe by Mote Marine Laboratories.' Do you accept this as a fair and accurate characterization of your test results, considering that Reef Safe with oxybenzone was tested?" We received no reply, but we called on Mote to stop Tropical Seas from making the fraudulent claim about Reef Safe.

Four months after our article was published, we received an email from Stephannie Kettle, the public relations manager at Mote Marine Laboratory. In regards to Tropical Seas's website claim that Mote had verified Reef Safe products as coral-safe, she wrote, ""[This] is not how we at Mote would describe the short-term testing we conducted. We found Reef Safe products caused no visual signs of stress, bleaching or mortality for two key species of adult Florida corals . . . . through our 20-day, independent test. We look forward to advancing such research with other reef species at different life stages, using increasingly sophisticated health diagnostics, to work toward a cutting-edge understanding of what it means to be reef-friendly.

Kettle said that Mote contacted Tropical Seas and requested "updates to their statements on their website, to better convey the nuances of what has been tested/not tested so far in the short-term study described above, and Reef Safe/Tropical Seas updated their website to read, 'Reef Safe sunscreen formulas have been tested by Mote Marine laboratories,' and then cite the report."

While Tropical Seas stopped pushing oxybenzone on its homepage, it still sells the oxybenzone-formulated "biodegradable" Reef Safe sunscreen, claiming it has been "proven safe by Mote Marine Lab," even though it hasn't. Mote needs to get tough, otherwise the lab remains complicit in the marketing of this product that kills coral.

We also pointed out in our August story that Trident, the major distributor of scuba support equipment to American dive stores, featured Reef Safe's fraudulent claims on its homepage. That led to subscriber Tom Schaefer taking action.

"After reading the Undercurrent article about Trident's marketing of Reef Safe sunscreen products, I decided to express my views to Trident," he wrote to us. "I then forwarded my message to a bunch of dive buddies, and at least one of them sent her own message. She received the following reply from Trident's Tom Bird: 'Upon hearing of this issue, I have pulled the information off of our website and will discontinue the products.' The hypertext link to Reef Safe disappeared within two days. "

While Tropical Seas now features oxybenzone-free products on its homepage, its oxybenzone formulation is sold under the "original" formula. Clearly, to them it's about the money, not about the coral. But their world may get smaller -- the Florida city of Key West votes this month to become the first place on the mainland U.S. to ban the sale of sunscreens that contain chemicals like oxybenzone.

-- Ben Davison

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