Is Your Sunscreen Reef Safe?

You’re on vacation in a tropical paradise, the sun is shining, and you are preparing for a swim in the reef. As the sun-conscious person that we know you are, you lather up with some sunscreen you picked up at the resort and dive in. But wait! Do you have a reef safe sunscreen? Not enough people realize that chemical-based sunscreens can cause harmful damage to the world’s coral and that a simple change can help to stop coral bleaching. Hawaii even placed a ban on two chemical sunscreens—oxybenzone and octinoxate—in an effort to help protect their coral reefs.

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“Oxybenzone caused complete bleaching of coral, even at very low concentrations!” #GiveChemicalsTheBird

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The NOAA National Center for Coastal Ocean Science and partners have found a link between sunscreen chemicals and coral bleaching. To summarize the findings of the study published in the Environmental Health Perspectives journal:

  • Corals are highly sensitive organisms that are prone to bleaching at the slightest stress, making even low concentrations of chemicals potentially harmful.
  • The chemicals that filter ultraviolet (UV) light can activate latent viral infections in the symbiotic microalgae that the corals rely on for nutrition.
  • Seawater surrounding coral exposed to sunscreen contained up to 15 times more viruses than unexposed samples.
  • The ingredients found in sunscreens that should be avoided around reefs, that also have shown potentially harmful effects on humans, are octinoxate (also known as ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate), oxybenzone, parabens and octocrylene.
  • The researchers estimate that 4000-6000 metric tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers and snorkelers into coral reef environments, and that up to 10% of the world’s reefs are at risk for bleaching due to sunscreen runoff.

While the study’s methodology isn’t necessarily perfect, as Christine Beggs of Project Blue Hope analyses, ingredients in chemical sunscreens are still harmful to both humans and the environment. Instead, she suggests the use of reef safe mineral sunscreens that are water resistant and biodegradable for the most environmentally friendly method of sun protection. The coral reefs, and your skin, will thank you.

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