As of January 1st 2021, a ban on the sale of sunscreens containing ingredients found to be harmful to coral has come into effect both in Hawaii and Key West, Florida. In other Countries, such as for example Mexico, federal regulation already required use of reef-safe sunscreen in a handful of protected areas, while as the nation of Palau became the first country to ban any “reef toxic” sunscreen in 2020.
But what exactly are “reef toxic” sunscreens and how can they be harmful to corals and sea life?
Sunscreen’s environmental toll
By now most of us know the impact that plastic pollution is having on our oceans and consequently on marine life and coral reefs, but what is not that commonly known is the effect sunscreen can have on those same ecosystems.
Up to 6,000 tons of sunscreen are estimated to wash into coral reefs around the globe each year, and with some of those ingredients being extremely harmful to aquatic life, the damage to these delicate systems is consistent.
The problem with this high amount of sunscreen ending up in the water each year is the fact that much of it is concentrated at popular diving, swimming, and snorkeling sites, such as national parks. The reefs most vulnerable to sunscreen damage are those in highly trafficked areas without a lot of water turnover, such as coastal reefs or atolls.
Recent studies have come to the conclusion that commonly used sunscreen ingredients are to blame for signs of distress, including coral bleaching, in reefs across the globe, including in the Atlantic Ocean, Indian Ocean, and Pacific Ocean. Even at low concentrations, the effects of sunscreen on reefs can leave coral vulnerable to infection, prevent it from getting the nutrients it needs to survive, as well as causing DNA damage and abnormalities in their growth and skeleton.
Research has also shown that the same chemicals can be harmful to other marine life, such as fish, sea urchins, and shrimp.
Which ingredients are to blame?
The ingredients found to be most harmful to corals are the two most commonly used UV blockers worldwide, and which have been banned in Hawaii, Key West (bans don’t apply to sunscreens prescribed by a doctor) and Palau, are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate.
Although these two chemicals are the most widely studied, they are certainly not the only two ingredients that might be an environmental threat.
Other commonly used harmful sunscreen ingredients include Homosalate, Octisalate, Cinnamates and parabens and microbeads.
Specifically, the other eight ingredients, along with Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, that were banned in Palau for example, are Octocrylene, and 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor which are all Sun Protection Factor (SPF) chemicals. Plus, Methyl paraben, Ethyl paraben, Butyl paraben, Benzyl paraben, Triclosan, and Ohenoxyethanol which are antimicrobial preservatives used in sunscreens as well as shampoos, moisturizers, liquid soaps, and hair conditioners.
Which sunscreens are “Reef-safe”?
As bans have been setting in, and more awareness has been raised surrounding this topic, some sunscreen makers have stopped using the two main culprits, oxybenzone or octinoxate, and consequently started labeling their products “reef-safe.”
Sadly, these two words are not a guarantee of safety for underwater ecosystems.
As the term “reef-safe” doesn’t have an agreed-upon definition, and isn’t strictly regulated by governments, manufacturers aren’t in fact required to test and demonstrate that such products won’t harm aquatic life.
If there are products that actually have been tested and proven not to harm marine life, we still don’t know how ecosystems would react to high concentrations of that sunscreen in a particular area, and if it could end up inducing toxicity or not.
Therefore, “Reef safer” is probably a better way to describe the options available.
Also, please note that another term which is sometimes used interchangeably for “reef safe,” is “biodegradable”. According to experts this too is a label that is damaging and unproven to actually translate to a product that is 100% safe for aquatic life.
What to choose?
This article wants to raise awareness regarding the damaging effects of certain ingredients on coral reefs and marine life worldwide, it DOES NOT want to discourage the use of sunscreen, which of course provides essential protection against sunburns and skin cancer.
What you can do though when choosing what to shop for your beach vacation, is to make it a point to read the labels of the sunscreen you are purchasing and taking with you. Avoid all the harmful ingredients we have listed up until now (Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octocrylene, Parabens, Triclosan, Ohenoxyethanol and Microbeads) and opt for mineral based sunscreens with “non-nanotized” zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
Make sure you choose a product that is water resistant (all sunscreens will eventually wash off in the water, but the better they are at sticking to your skin, the less of it will end up in the ocean) and opt for lotions rather than sprays (which can end up on the sand and then in the water).
Once you’ve applied your sunscreen be sure to wait at least 10 minutes to let your skin absorb the products before going in the water and risking it immediately washing all off.
Ultimately, the very best thing you can do to protect marine life, as well as protecting your skin from the sun, is to cover up as much as possible, either in UPF (Ultraviolet Protection Factor) clothing, or simply and old T-shirt. Of course you will still need to apply sunscreen to exposed skin, but you’ll need far less than if you were wearing just a bathing suit.
Another tip to keep in mind, could also be to avoid popular areas so that there is less concentration of sunscreen in that specific spot.
Booking a sun-soaked vacation? Find out how to travel more sustainably here!