Sunscreen 101: Protecting Your Skin and Coral Reefs

reef-safe sunscreen

Coral reefs are one of the most beautiful, colorful, and biodiverse ecosystems on the planet—but they are also one of the most fragile.

Due to a slew of stressors, scientists predict that all coral reefs will be considered “threatened” by 2050. In addition to problems like overfishing, pollution, and climate change, one threat may be coming directly off your skin—sunscreen

That’s right, the ingredients found in some sunscreens are dangerous to coral reefs, and the scale is frightening, with an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen deposited into the ocean annually. But changing your sunscreen is a pretty easy fix. It just means you need to learn which ingredients to avoid and what alternatives to look for.

The first step to buying reef-safe sunscreen is to check which active ingredients are in the bottle. Unfortunately, you can’t rely on brands that make “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly” claims, as there is no government regulation for this and manufacturers are not required to test if the product is impacting reefs.

Key ingredients to avoid are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. Additionally, look out for Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, and Octocrylene. These can affect corals’ reproductive cycle, damage DNA, and worsen the effects of coral bleaching.

“This is an opportunity for people to do something simple to help save coral reefs,” says Erica Perez, CORAL’s Senior Program Manager in Hawai‘i. “Studies have shown that chemical sunscreen is toxic and has significant impacts to coral health and their reproduction. By using reef safe sunscreen, you are taking part in protecting the reef into the future.”

reef-safe sunscreen

In fact, these ingredients don’t just pose a threat to coral reefs. They can also be harmful to other marine life, such as fish, dolphins, green algae, and sea urchins, and cause problems like deformation, decreased fertility, and impaired growth. Some are even known to be harmful to human health.

Regardless, we need to continue protecting our skin, as powerful UV rays can increase the risk of cancer and other health issues. So what’s the solution? How can we protect coral reefs and our skin?

The safest sunscreen is biodegradable and made from minerals, instead of chemicals. We recommend using brands with non-nano Titanium Dioxide or Zinc Oxide as the active ingredient. “Non-nano” sunscreen is made up of particles larger than 100 nanometers in diameter and is safer for marine life than “nano” sunscreen, containing particles smaller than 100 nanometers.

In addition, you could drastically reduce the use of sunscreen by wearing protective clothing, like rash guards, instead.

Even if you’re not at the beach, “reef-safe” precautions should still be taken. This is because the residue from sunscreen can spread through waterways and into the ocean. It can even spread from the shower!

According to Dr. Helen Fox, CORAL’s Conservation Science Director, omitting harmful sunscreen ingredients is just one piece of the puzzle when it comes to saving coral reefs. There are multiple factors involved, but when you continue to learn and take action, you give coral reefs a better chance at survival.

And coral reefs are worth saving. “From a scientific perspective, coral reefs are amazing because of their tremendous biodiversity,” says Fox, noting that most phyla, or large animal groupings, live amongst reefs. Not to mention, millions of people around the world depend on them. “Coral reefs are a major source of income through tourism and offer a major source of nutrition for many coastal communities.”

Humans have the power to make a difference and allow coral reefs to thrive. Along with changing your sunscreen, you can take other actions to help save coral reefs, including: picking up litter on the beach (and reducing plastic use), following diving and snorkeling best practices, reducing your carbon emissions, and donating to a worthy cause. We all have an obligation to protect the world’s incredible and invaluable coral reefs—and change starts with you.

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Help save the world’s coral reefs