What Does Reef Safe* Mean?

Updated: Mar 27, 2021

Some people want to criticize the idea of any soap being reef safe. But that's okay! At least they're thinking about what may or may not have adverse effects of our world's reef systems. So, I want to explain what Reef Safe* means.

What is NOT Reef Safe?

Australia and the State of Hawaii has banned the use of normal sunscreens because of the adverse effects of the sunscreen on the corals. And, by adverse effects, I mean toxic. The active ingredients in commercially produced sunscreen are oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and/or octinoxate. These chemicals are made to block UV radiation and are washing off of sunbathers in such great quantities that they are literally starving corals to death. Corals are photosynthetic animals that thrive on the UV rays from the sun. When the sunscreens cloud the water and stick to the mucus membranes of the corals, the symbiotic zooxanthellae algae cannot get the specific light spectrums that they need to convert carbon dioxide, water and animal waste into sugars for the coral polyps to survive. The corals starve and expel their zooxanthellae algae in distress. This phenomenon is called bleaching.

Interestingly, the same chemicals that are supposed to "protect you from the sun" also penetrate your skin and inhibit your body's ability to produce its own protection from the sun. Whether, you knew it or not, you are actually partly photosynthetic. Your skin cells produce melanin to protect you from the sun's UV rays while at then same time uses the UV rays to produce melatonin and vitamin D. The vitamin D helps you to absorb important minerals like calcium and phosphorus. It also plays an important role in boosting your immune system. Melatonin helps you to sleep and balance your endocrine system. The truth is, your body can protect itself without those chemicals and will do better without those chemicals.

Commercial sunscreen products also use zinc oxide that has been micronized to the size of nanoparticles that are less than 0.18 microns in size. Normally, the zinc oxide that breaks off of sacrificial anodes from corrosion is bigger than that and poses no threat to corals. However, when the particles are less than 0.18 microns they can clog the pores that corals use to absorb nutrients. Nanoparticles also block your skin from absorbing nutrients. With all that being said, why do we claim that OUR products ARE Reef Safe?

What Is Reef Safe?

First of all, we don't use synthetic chemicals or nanoparticles. We do however make soap that is a surfactant, which natural or not, does lower the surface tension between water and lipids. So, as a soap, it does burn if you get it into your eyes. BUT, what do you do when you get soap in your eye? You flush it with more water. Once the sodium chains of soap have done their job, they quickly breakdown into salts and carbon compounds. In saltwater coral reefs are also protected from sodium-based surfactants by another factor - extremely hard water. Seawater is abundant in sodium, calcium, and magnesium. These minerals exist in a natural ion form and quickly bind to the sodium compounds in soap. They actually tear the soaps sodium chains apart. In fact, most sodium-based soaps do not lather well in hard water for that reason. Those specific chemical reaction are the reasons that we only use sodium-based soaps for our Reef Safe soaps.

Now it is vital that I point out that I mentioned sodium-based soaps. There are other soaps that can be called "sailor's soap" or "mariner's soap" that are not sodium based. These are the same as your liquid hand and body soaps. They also lather in saltwater and hard water, however, they are able to do so because they are potassium-based. Potassium-based soaps do not breakdown as quickly and DO pose a risk to corals. Potassium is also present in saltwater and does play a vital role in ion exchanges in animal metabolisms, BUT in much smaller quantities.

The reason we call OUR soaps Reef Safe, is because they are safer for corals than these other soaps - a lot safer. Now, I still wouldn't recommend trying to use our soap directly on corals, just like I wouldn't recommend rubbing our soap in your eyes. There is after all that STING factor involved. That goes for your eyes and corals. And, I definitely don't recommend standing directly on or around a reef while you're bathing because, well, that's just plain rude. Imagine, eating dinner at the table and having your wet dog come in shake off all over your food. Just a thought to mow over.

To the uneducated activists out there: Consider this article the next time you use sunblock or liquid soaps. AND as a disclaimer, the reason I don't claim to be vegan because I proudly eat lionfish to save the reefs.