For years, research has shown that sunscreen residue from surfers, snorkelers, divers, and other ocean athletes damages and kills coral reefs. In tourist hotspots like the Great Barrier Reef, Hawaii, Southeast Asian islands in the coral triangle, and all around the globe, coral reefs are critically threatened – partially thanks to human visitors. Figures from the U.S. National Park Service estimate that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reef areas every year.
If you can, consider covering yourself with a rashguard, leggings, hat, sunglasses, and a sarong to minimize the skin you have exposed to the sun. On the parts that are sunburn prone, use reef-safe sunscreen only. Fortunately, some states and beaches are seeking to ban reef-damaging sunscreens. But until that happens, we need to be proactive.
How does sunscreen damage coral reefs?
In a study by Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, researchers found that oxybenzone is lethal to young coral. This chemical causes endocrine disruption, which affects how the coral grows and accepts symbiotic organisms – leading to coral bleaching. It effects young corals in four separate ways. First, oxybenzone causes corals to bleach at a lower temperature than they would otherwise. Second, oxybenzone causes baby corals to produce excess calcium carbonate — where basically, they create a skeleton around themselves and die. Third, oxybenzone damages coral DNA making it harder for them to reproduce. When (if) they reproduce, the offspring is weak or mutilated. Finally, this fun chemical leads to deformities in young coral, impacting how they swim and eat.
Corals already battle bleaching though the rising sea temperatures, overfishing, mining, and boat anchoring, so bombarding them with toxic chemicals is extremely stressful. Since nearly a quarter of all sea life lives at some point in its life in coral reefs, you can imagine what the loss of coral does to fish populations.
The pros of reef-safe sunscreen
Currently, there is no sunscreen that leaves a positive effect on coral reefs. There are only some sunscreens that are much, much better than others.
Two obvious pros:
- You’re not being a villain to the environment you love
- Reef-safe sunscreens are better for your health
The cons of reef-safe sunscreen
Reef-safe sunscreen tends to be mineral sunscreen. This means you can’t apply it like you would a normal sunscreen or lotion. You need to take a small amount, put it in your hands, and rub it into your body in sections. Many mineral sunscreens leave a white residue or might have a white film on your skin once you enter the water. Some residues last longer than others.
Autumn Blum, founder of Stream2Sea sunscreen has a few tips for applying reef-safe sunscreen,
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.
This is typically the only downside to reef-safe sunscreens. But, money is power – the more you purchase these sunscreens, the more companies will switch to using them and hopefully will have a way of solving the white-film problem soon.
Read our full interview with Autumn Blum and how she developed reef-safe sunscreen.
What ingredients should I look out for in sunscreens?
Oxybenzone aka BP-3 or Benzophenone-3: This chemical blocks UV rays from reaching your skin and is found in most common sunscreens.
Oh, and it’s not just coral reefs that oxybenzone harms. Oxybenzone has been linked to hormone disruption in humans, and stays in our bodies for an unknown length of time. The US EWG, notes that oxybenzone is linked to low birth weights, damages skin, causes hormone disruption, and helps other chemicals enter the skin. It is linked to early puberty in girls, low sperm count in men, and is potentially more estrogenic than BPA. The only thing it’s #1 at? Being the Allergen of the Year (2014, American Contact Dermatitis Society). Damn, oxybenzone blows!
Why is it used? Oxybenzone helps sunscreen rub in clearly, so that you aren’t left with a white film on your skin. It’s also a very cheap form of sun protection – though you really have to wonder what’s more damaging, oxybenzone or the sun’s rays?
Retinyl palmitate: Fortunately, this is found in a quarter of sunscreens. In mice, retinyl palmitate increased the risk of skin cancer when exposed to the sun. (But the research regarding humans is inconclusive.)
Parabens: Methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and isobutylparaben are preservatives in cosmetics. They’re what keep bacteria and fungus out of the cosmetic or sunscreen — especially in warm, wet places (like bathrooms or dive bags). Though the jury is still out on just how bad they are for your health, there is a link between parabens and breast cancer in women. Best Health Mag goes more in depth into parabens and their dubious effects.
Choose lotion over spray: Not only are lotions more cost efficient and better at protecting your skin, they’re also better for nature. It’s easy to inhale spray sunscreens and more sunscreen is likely to be released into the environment.
You want non-nano mineral sunscreens. This way, the sunscreen sits on top of your skin, like a mask, rather than being absorbed into the body.
Titanium oxide: A natural mineral that filters UV rays.
Zinc oxide: A natural mineral that provides broad spectrum protection.
What about lotion, shampoo, conditioner, and other cosmetics?
Like sunscreen, all cosmetics that you wear on your skin and enter the ocean with will eventually leech into the sea. If you’re on a liveaboard or staying at a hotel near the shoreline, it’s likely that the graywater will be dumped into the ocean. Stay simple when it comes to cosmetics and soaps. Coconut oil makes a wonderful moisturizer, and companies like Stream2Sea have a line of coral-conscious body lotions, leave-in conditioners, bodywash, and more.
Recommended sunscreens for coral reefs
The Environmental Working Group Organization puts out a yearly guide to sunscreens.
Here are our top picks.
(If, for some reason, you can’t find any reef-safe sunscreens, choose the children’s version or one meant for those with sensitive skin.)
Alba Botanicals (double check the label): Some of their skincare contains oxybenzone.
Australian Gold Botanical: Smells amazing. Residue stays on a little longer than many other kinds. My dad used it once and loved it so much that he didn’t touch his Coppertone bottle for an entire trip. Then, he took mine home!
Garden Goddess: Garden Goddess is targeted towards people with sensitive skin. Though rubbing it in isn’t easy, it offers full-spectrum protection.
Stream2Sea (also includes leave-in conditioners) – Founded by a passionate scuba diver, Autumn Blum, is on the forefront of coral reef health advocacy. Even as a vegetarian and advocate against cosmetic animal testing, I appreciate Stream2Sea’s transparency on live testing on coral and fish. Their first formula, deemed safe by all existing standards, killed zebra fish and minnows. There is no other sunscreen (that I know of) that is as innovative as Stream2Sea.
Tom’s of Maine: Tom’s of Maine is a commonly loved and referred to brand among health gurus. This baby sunscreen protects adult skin just as well as the little ones’.
The Surf Butter Co.: *The Salt Sirens top choice* Face zinc perfect for surfers and those spending many hours in tropical sunshine.