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Sunscreen is Damaging Our Coral Reefs – How Can We Protect Them AND Our Skin?

When you’re snorkeling or swimming during your vacation, the sunscreen that’s safeguarding your skin might also be endangering the vibrant coral reef and marine life below you. Discover how you can protect the marine destinations you visit, without putting your own health at risk. 

For decades, we’ve heard about the importance of using sunscreen to protect ourselves against the sun’s harmful UV rays. So it should come as no surprise that the annual global sun care market is predicted to reach nearly $25 billion by 2024 – an increase of 68% from 2015.

There are two main types of sunscreen: physical (mineral) and chemical. Mineral sunscreens act as a physical barrier on top of your skin, reflecting the sun’s rays away from your body. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain synthetic compounds which absorb the UV light before it reaches your skin.  

While lathering on sunscreen before hitting the beach may protect us from the dangers of sun exposure, it can have the opposite effect on life under water.  It is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the oceans each year. And this is not only from those of us who like to swim in the sea.  The sunscreen that you rinse down the drain when you shower can eventually find its way into the ocean. In addition, the convenient aerosol sprays can spread sunscreen particles across the sand. When the tide comes in, these chemicals can get washed out to sea.  

Sunscreen has become part of our holiday rituals and daily skin routines, but many of these products contain numerous ingredients which can be damaging to marine life.  So damaging, in fact, that some destinations including Palau, Hawaii, US Virgin Islands, Key West, and Bonaire are all in the process of banning toxic sunscreens.  

Snorkeling over a coral reef
Photo: MARK FITZ / CORAL REEF IMAGE BANK

How Does Sunscreen Harm Coral Reefs?

But what exactly is all the fuss about? And why are some destinations taking such drastic measures? Is this day-to-day product really a threat to our reefs?

Unfortunately, research has found that some of the main chemicals used in sunscreens are harmful to corals and other marine life. One of the main culprits is Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), a chemical ingredient found in over 3,500 sun care products.  

These chemicals can lead to coral bleaching, damage the DNA of corals, and increase abnormal growth and deformities. Sunscreen is likely just one more stressor that is making corals more susceptible to disease, such as the Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease that is affecting reefs across the Caribbean sea.

How does sunscreen cause coral bleaching? Corals are usually covered in zooxanthallae. These tiny creatures absorb light and use photosynthesis to create food for the coral. When corals become stressed due to increased water temperatures or pollution from chemicals found in sunscreen, they expel the zooxanthallae. These tiny creatures are a lifeline for the coral, and without them they lose the main food and oxygen source and also the wide array of colors that make coral so attractive. Bleached corals are more vulnerable to disease. Their growth is stunted and the damage will negatively impact the surrounding marine life. Although it is possible for some to recover, most bleached corals will starve to death. (Photo: THE OCEAN AGENCY / XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY)

But it’s not only chemical sunscreens that are harmful.  Mineral sunscreens sometimes contain nano-particles which are so small that they can be absorbed by marine life.  These minerals are toxic to many ocean species and can cause stress and ultimately death, even at low concentrations.  

In addition to the harm caused to coral, sunscreen can decrease fertility in fish; accumulate in dolphins; damage the immune systems of sea urchins and deform their young; and impair photosynthesis in algae.

While we’ve greatly expanded our knowledge around this subject in recent years, there is still much more research to be done to fully understand the impacts of sunscreen on coral reefs.

Woman wearing sunscreen and hat on beach

What Can We Do?

Despite how worrying this all sounds, it is possible to enjoy the sun while refraining from using harmful products. Follow these tips to make sure you stay sun-safe and reef-safe:

Stay undercover. The easiest way to protect yourself is to stick to the shade, especially during the hottest hours of the day.

Cover up. T-shirts, hats and pants offer adequate protection.  Consider swimwear and clothing which contain UV protection in the material. And remember, if you’ll be wearing a wetsuit, there’s no need to apply sunscreen underneath! 

Escape the midday sun. Enjoy the sun in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the harshest rays between the hours of 10am and 2pm.

When buying sunscreen…think reef safe! 

Luckily, you don’t have to give up sunscreen altogether!  ‘Reef-safe’ is not regulated and has no agreed specifications, so when purchasing your next bottle of sunscreen check the labels and consider the following:

  • Avoid aerosols – spray-on sunscreens create a chemical cloud that settles onto the sand. When the tide comes in these chemicals wash into the ocean. 
  • Avoid sunscreens that contain harmful chemicals such as Oxybenzone, Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, and 3-Benzylidene camphor
  • Opt for mineral sunscreens that use ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. But remember that not all mineral sunscreens are reef-safe. In order to be reef-safe, the ingredients must be “non-nano,” or larger than 100 nanometer in size, as this makes it less likely that it will be absorbed by marine life.  Choose mineral products that indicate that the ingredients are non-nano, for example “non-nano zinc oxide”. 
  • If unsure about the reef-safety of a product, check the Consumer Products Inventory or look for the Protect Land + Sea Certification.

Spread the word. Drive consumer demand by advocating for more-reef safe sunscreen options and raising awareness. Educate others about the consequences of certain sunscreens and let them know how they too can keep themselves and the reef safe.

Join our movement to protect coral reefs

Being cognizant about your sunscreen use is just one way that you can lessen the impact of your travels on coral reefs. We’ve launched an ambitious campaign with the goal of raising $40K in 40 days to transform conservation of one of the world’s largest, yet most at risk coral reefs. Up your environmental commitment and join the movement to protect the Mesoamerican Reef by making a donation or spreading the word today.

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