Is Your Sunscreen Killing Coral? Here’s How to Choose a Reef-Safe Sunscreen
If you’re reading this blog on WellBeing by Well.ca, you’re probably already trying to lead a healthy lifestyle by eating healthy foods, taking good care of your skin, and minimizing your impact on the environment. And when it comes to skincare specifically, you may already have switched to natural, mineral-based sunscreens from conventional sunscreens. Did you know that natural sunscreens may also help preserve coral reefs? If tropical oceans are part of your vacation plans, it’s time to discover reef-safe sunscreens, which you’ll be seeing more and more of as communities and sunscreen manufacturers respond to the growing crisis of dying corals.
Why aren’t all sunscreens safe for coral?
Coral reefs are important yet delicate ecosystems that are already under enormous stress from human activities including pollution, fishing, tourism, development, and global warming. On top of these, scientists at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory and elsewhere have shown that certain sunscreen chemicals stress and kill coral and that the amount of these ingredients entering coral reef ecosystems is a major concern. They calculated that one drop in 6.5 Olympic-sized pools is enough to kill coral and they recently found these chemicals in Florida Keys beach water at over 100 times the toxic level.
There are several chemicals in sunscreens and cosmetics that are toxic to various marine life; however, the main ingredients-of-concern to corals are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. These chemicals are cheap, legal, and effective active sunscreen ingredients, which is why they’re found in most sunscreens on the market.
Check out the links at the bottom of this article if you’d like to learn more about the science evidence and other ingredients of concern.
What’s being done to protect coral reefs from harmful sunscreen ingredients?
Tropical communities all over the world rely on healthy coral for tourism, fishing, ecosystem diversity, protection from storms, and more. Most of these communities have seen their coral health decline, and because they recognize the direct threat to their economies and ways of life, they are actively banning coral reef damaging sunscreens—for example:
- Hawaii passed a state law banning sunscreens containing Oxybenzone and Octinoxate beginning in 2021.
- The island nation of Palau in the Western Pacific passed a law restricting the sale and use of sunscreens and cosmetics containing ten ingredients of concern. Starting in 2020, retailers selling reef-damaging products face a $1000 fine, and visitors can have their ‘reef-toxic’ sunscreens confiscated.
- The City of Key West in Florida is the latest high-profile community to take action against sunscreen chemicals. On January 15, 2019, the city commissioners will vote on whether to ban sunscreen products containing the chemicals Oxybenzone and Octinoxate.
Sunscreen manufacturers have responded to the problem in different ways. Most of the large ‘conventional’ sunscreen brands continue to use these ingredients, and either don’t discuss the issue or actively oppose community sunscreen bans, such as in Key West. Some sunscreen manufacturers are changing their formulas to remove these toxic ingredients. And many ‘natural’ and ‘all-mineral’ sunscreen brands, including us here at Badger, have never used these types of ingredients—we have been following and writing about this issue for years.
What can you do to help protect coral reefs from sunscreen damage?
First, educate yourself and evaluate your sources of information. Read about the issue from the scientists themselves and from trusted journalists and non-profits, not just sunscreen manufacturers (including us!). Read and understand your sunscreen ingredients, so you know what you’re buying.
Second, the simplest and smartest thing you can do is to minimize exposure to sun in the first place so that you can avoid sunscreen application when possible. Seek shade during peak sun hours, wear a rash guard or a light wetsuit in the water, and wear a hat and light long sleeved shirt on land.
Third, if you are going to use a sunscreen, choose one that does not contain the chemicals known to harm coral. Not all sunscreens are the same, and this is where educating yourself and reading your labels really pays off. We’ve included some tips for doing just that in the next section.
Fourth, spread the word! Share this blog with your friends and family, especially anyone going on a tropical vacation this winter or otherwise!
Finally, don’t let all this get you down. Enjoy the beach, have fun snorkeling on coral reefs, and be happy knowing that you’re making informed decisions and protecting these amazing ecosystems.
How can I identify reef-safe sunscreens?
There are a number of toxic sunscreen ingredients, but the most common are Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, and parabens. Also note that label claims and logos can be deceptive, so you really have to read the ingredients to be sure. At Badger, we of course recommend our sunscreens, but we also recommend several other brands, including those that are members of the Safe Sunscreen Council.
Other things to consider when looking for reef-friendly sunscreens:
- All Mineral – Look for sunscreens whose active ingredients are non-nano Zinc Oxide and/or Titanium Dioxide. You may have to do a little digging, but these are minerals, not synthetic chemicals, and are considered the best option for protecting coral. Besides, these mineral-based sunscreens have fewer human health concerns making them a better overall choice for you and your family.
- Water Resistant – This regulated term will ensure that more of the sunscreen stays on your body and less washes off into the water.
- Biodegradable – Exercise Caution – This is a generally unregulated term, so you may have to do a little digging on a sunscreen brand’s website to make sure they are actually testing this.
- Reef Safe – Exercise Caution – This claim is also unregulated, and some brands have been known to make this claim even when their products contain the exact ingredients shown to harm coral. Buyer beware!
Do you have any tropical beach travel plans this winter? Have you had an experience with a resort that has required reef-safe sunscreens? Please leave a comment and share your story.
For more information, visit:
- Reefs at Risk Video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aGP9loQ0dqs
- Haereticus Environmental Laboratory: http://www.haereticus-lab.org/
- National Park Service Bulletin: “The Impacts of Sunscreens on our Coral Reefs” – https://cdhc.noaa.gov/_docs/Site%20Bulletin_Sunscreen_final.pdf
- 2015 Research Paper: http://www.haereticus-lab.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/10/ecotox-sunscreen-chemicals.pdf
- 2008 Research Paper: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2291018
Chris Hamilton is part of the Badger family and works on various projects across the company. He dives and surfs in the tropics and is a big fan of Badger’s reef safe/reef friendly sunscreens.