Find out why you should choose reef-safe sunscreen and how it impacts not only our environment, but our bodies
It’s hot. We’re melting. Coral reefs are dying. Go Coral Neutral to save the planet… and yourself.
The Importance of Reefs
Coral reefs cover 1% of the ocean floor and serve as a hotspot for biodiversity thus providing a wealth of benefits to both fish and human populations. These marine ecosystems foster opportunities for new medicine, support tourism and deter storm damage. No one benefits more from reef stability than us. Just as reefs contribute $36 billion in tourism revenue to the global economy and employ 500 million people worldwide; these aquatic hubs also protect surrounding communities and infrastructure. Reefs are natural barriers that slow hurricanes, discourage erosion and prevent loss of life. Every year, new treatments are created from reef inhabitants that doctor heart disease, cancer, arthritis, viruses and other ailments.
Constantly threatened by overfishing, tourism, and pollution, these fragile ecosystems are hardly any match for human intrusion. Pollution, such as chemicals from traditional and aerosol sunscreen, dampen water quality and induce toxicity. You wouldn’t think that your sunscreen really makes a difference. However, the ocean is flooded with 4-6,000 tons of sunscreen each year. This figure is not evenly distributed across our oceans, it’s congregated in popular swimming, diving and snorkeling locations which pose a significant threat to protected areas like National Parks. Coral disease and bleaching are caused by biological stress, which can result from a concentration of unnatural chemicals. These infections have become prominent in reefs across the world. Once one coral is infected, an entire colony can suffer.
There are many exploitative chemicals that cling onto reefs but Oxybenzone is a by far the most contested. This chemical is the face of the coral disease crisis. It lurks in over 3,500 types of sunblock worldwide. Not only does Oxybenzone destroy our marine ecosystems but our human bodies as well. According to the CDC, 96% of people have trace amounts of oxybenzone present in their body. Many ingredients in sunscreen are endocrine disruptors, the anatomical system that regulates growth and development, sexual function and reproduction. Oxybenzone is known to contribute to loss of fertility, such as a low sperm count or endometriosis. It poses a threat to pregnancy, leading to birth defects like Hirschsprung’s Disease and has been found in breast milk.
This chemical has a similar effect on corals. A study conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that young corals exposed to Oxybenzone exhibit signs of distress which makes them more susceptible to infection. Oxybenzone breaks down coral’s DNA structure and leaves them vulnerable to bleaching, deformities, disease and death.
Is It Really Reef-Safe
Key West, Hawaii, and other marine tourism hotspots throughout the world have banned sunscreen that contains Oxybenzone and similarly harmful chemicals. Companies are responding to the public’s heightened awareness of reef endangerment and have begun to create products that are better for these environments. Although there is no proven, 100% reef-safe sunscreen, avoiding over-the-counter sunscreen that contains Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Homosalate, Octisalate, Avobenzone, Octocrylene, parabens and nanoparticles goes a long way. There is not as much research on these lesser known chemicals. However, lack of data doesn’t mean it’s safe.
The U.S. Food and Drug Administration currently does not have a standard nor set of requirements for reef-safe labelling. Meaning, these labels are unregulated and can be used freely by sunblock companies. Knowing the common toxic ingredients that are found in sunscreen is a good way to avoid this type of greenwashing.
As of 2020, REI has pledged to stop selling sunscreen that contains any Oxybenzone and is a good resource for reef-safe products. Brands like Sun Bum, TropicSport, and Banana Boat from REI don’t contain Oxybenzone and are more affordable than some reef-safe luxury brands.
- Buy sunblock in lotion form, not as a spray
- Spray is more susceptible to wind, ending up in the water and not on your body
- Physical barriers, such as minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are typically safer for reefs than chemical barriers
- If your sunblock contains these minerals, make sure it contains non-nanoparticles. Nanoparticles can seep into corals and human skin.
- Wear clothing
- Other than seeking out shade, wearing protective clothing is a good way to avoid sunburn and sunscreen. However, on any areas of exposed skin, sunblock should be worn
- Look for clothing with the label UPF, which stands for Ultraviolet Protective Factor
- This REI article explains the importance of UPF clothing
- DIY sunblock is probably not effective
- If you chose to make your own sunscreen, there is no way to test that the ingredients you used are properly mixed, labelled and tested.
- Essential oils, like carrot seed oil, only have an SPF between 1-7
It’s 2020 and traditional sunscreen just doesn’t cut it anymore. The information we have gathered over the past few decades conclusively suggests that it’s unsustainable for our marine environments and our own health. Making this change only requires a small action but results in a big impact. Protect our corals and choose reef-safe this year!