A sustainable wetsuit is a must have when exploring the seas, however just as important to saving the ocean is ensuring that the sunscreen we put on our bodies isn't contributing to ocean pollution. Conventional sunscreens often contain chemicals and compounds that are highly toxic to coral and marine species. These substances drive coral bleaching, interrupt the reproduction of fish species, and create impacts throughout entire ocean ecosystems.
Coral species are particularly susceptible to the effects of ocean pollution from water contamination, and this creates a core problem for ocean life. Coral is an essential part of worldwide ecosystems, and damage and destruction of coral has knock on impacts that can be felt across the world. While coral reefs cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, a quarter of all marine life calls them home. When the health and survival of reefs are threatened, every species that relies on these habitats also faces an uncertain future.
Luckily, there are solutions to the problem of chemical contamination from sunscreen, because after all sunscreen is an essential part of staying safe when exploring the seas. Reef safe sunscreens offer protection from the harmful effects of the sun's UV rays, while still creating a lighter impact on the ocean.
So let's dive in and explore why reef safe sunscreen is a must for your next surf session, beach hangout, or diving exploration.
What is Reef Safe Sunscreen?
So, to set the scene, you've ditched the microplastic shedding, petroleum derived unsustainable wetsuit for a cleaner, greener eco-friendly wetsuit. You have acquired the perfect surfboard, and are ready to hit the waves in a new, sustainable way. But what about sunscreen?
Reef friendly sunscreen offers a vital part of hitting the waves sustainably, but what actually is it?
Sunscreen classed as 'reef safe' is designed to limit the negative impact the chemicals in sunscreen have on coral reef environments. These sunscreens don't contain many of the harmful chemicals that conventional sunscreen does, so offer a lighter environmental impact and fewer environmental side effects when compared to regular sunscreen.
In particular, most reef safe sunscreens don't contain the compounds oxybenzone and octinoxate, two substances that have proved to be highly detrimental to marine habitats. instead of containing these harmful substances, reef safe sunscreens commonly contain mineral-based UV-blocking ingredients.
By choosing reef safe sunscreen when you next hit the waves, it helps minimise your overall environmental impact and protects vital coral reef systems from pollution and destruction.
The Chemical Cocktail of Conventional Sunscreen
Now, I know there is no doubt that quality sunscreen is an essential part of protecting our skin from harmful, cancer-causing UV rays. However, when it comes to the environment, many commercial sunscreens do more harm than good. A large part of the damage sunscreen creates in marine environments is because of the cocktail of chemicals that form the base components of unsustainable sunscreens.
These chemicals are washing off into the ocean and wreaking havoc on marine ecosystems, in particular, the world's precious reef habitats. The amount of sunscreen that leaches into the oceans is no mere amount, with estimates that a staggering 14,000 tons of sunscreen are washed off into the sea around the world every year. The pollution that these substances cause makes coral increasingly prone to leaching and drives reef destruction. In this way, the very sunscreen we wear contributes to dire statistics, such as the fact that 91% of the reef networks in the world famous Great Barrier Reef were found to be impacted by coral bleaching as recently as 2022.
The Problem with Oxybenzone and Octinoxate
Two of the core perpetrators when it comes to the chemicals in sunscreen that are detrimental to coral reefs, are the oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Both octinoxate and oxybenzone are common components in a variety of skincare and skin protection products. This is because they are great at helping to protect our skin against the negative impacts of UV rays, but, and I know there always has to be a but, while they are protecting our skin, they are very much not protecting the ocean.
Oxybenzone, in particular, has been found in high levels in marine environments and studies have found it entering these environments through both wastewater and more directly, washing off our skin as we take a dip in the sea. Once present in the water, this environmentally damaging chemical causes drastic impacts on coral populations.
Both substances are known to contribute to coral bleaching. The risk that these chemicals pose to coral reef systems is so severe that there has even been legislation to ban their use to help save the seas.
The damage oxybenzone causes to coral can be categorised into four key areas of coral development. The substance causes damage to the DNA of coral, through acting as an endocrine disruptor it creates abnormal skeleton growth, and has been observed to cause major deformities in developing young coral. Furthermore, the presence of oxybenzone at sites where young coral populations exist, increases the susceptibility of these organisms to coral bleaching.
While oxybenzone and octinoxate pose a major threat to coral, this isn't the only threat that they offer to the reef. These substances are also known to cause birth defects and create severe reproductive issues for our fish friends, as well as sea urchins, and mussels.
The Benzophenone-2 Conundrum
Another common additive to sunscreen and other skincare products is a substance known as Benzonphenone - 2, commonly shortened to just BP-2. Much like oxybenzone, BP-2 can cause DNA damage and anomalies in coral species. The substance can increase mutations in coral organisms and lead to bleaching in some coral species.
While leaching from applied sunscreen directly into the ocean when we are wearing BP-2 containing substances does create considerable exposure of this chemical in reef environments, it also enters waterways through run off of wastewater. This means that even sunscreen washed down the drain once we get home can find its way into the ocean. Making the situation even more troubling, in many locations around the world, BP-2 isn't screened for or removed in water treatment plants. This includes in locations with delicate reef environments across the Caribbean.
What is Coral Bleaching and How Does Sunscreen Impact it?
A problem commonly talked about when discussing the harmful impacts of sunscreen that isn't reef-friendly, is coral bleaching. But you may be left wondering, what actually is coral bleaching and why is it such a problem?
Coral bleaching occurs when coral ejects the algae that live in its tissues. As the name may suggest, when this happens coral loses its hallmark bright colours and turns completely white. The leading cause of coral bleaching is changes in water temperatures driven by global warming, however this is not the only thing that causes these extreme environmental responses. Exposure to pollution and chemicals, such as those found in sunscreen, can also cause bleaching events, alongside causing mutations that make coral more susceptible to bleaching.
When bleaching occurs the coral hasn't yet died, but it is in an extremely vulnerable position. When coral loses the algae that naturally is found in its tissues, it loses its main source of food. Bleached coral is also more prone to diseases, meaning when bleaching occurs entire reef systems can be at risk of being lost.
Around the world coral bleaching events have put a major strain on reef ecosystems. A monumental bleaching event occured in 2005, when half of the US coral reefs in the Caribbean were impacted by bleaching.
Sunscreen Bans to Save the Seas
In 2018, Hawaii made the controversial decision to ban the sale of all sunscreen that contained oxybenzone or octinoxate. The decisions was made to help limit ocean pollution that was caused by sunscreens containing these dangerous chemicals. While Hawaii may have been the first state in the US to introduce such a ban, and arguably the most publicised ban to be put in place, it is far from the only place in the world to have created such regulations. The oceanside tourism hotspots of Aruba, Palau, Key West and the US Virgin Islands all created similar bans on the sale of sunscreen that wasn't reef safe.
Furthermore, while it isn't a nation-wide ban, some areas of Mexico prohibit the use of sunscreen that isn't mineral based. The Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park on Mexico's Cozumel Island only permits reef-safe sunscreen.
In Hawaii, there were even proposals to expand the ban to include more substances found in sunscreen and other cosmetic products that are potentially harmful to ocean life. While we can all agree that these regulations are a step in the right direction, there is no doubt that more can be done to help limit chemical contamination in the sea.
Is Reef Safe Sunscreen Safe for People Too?
Of course, sunscreen is an essential product for protecting our skin from harmful UV rays,and reducing the overall risk of developing skin cancer when having fun in the sun. As such, it isn't enough for reef safe sunscreen to be environmentally friendly, they also have to provide adequate UV protection.
Luckily, official sunscreens that skip the toxic chemicals have still been found to provide adequate protection (as long as it is applied properly and at an appropriate frequency) from harmful UV rays. Reef safe sunscreens certified to SPF 50+ are commercially available, making it easy to protect your skin and the ocean on your next day at the beach.
Many reef safe sunscreens work by scattering or reflecting UV rays, rather than absorbing rays which substances such as oxybenzone do. As such, these sunscreens are sometimes categorised as a 'physical sunscreen', rather than a 'chemical sunscreen'.
There is some evidence that these more physical based sunscreens may actually be better than their chemical counterparts for people as well as the reef. Studies have found that in some instances, substances present in more chemical based sunscreens can enter the bloodstream and remain within the body for up to twenty four hours.
Finding Reef Safe Sunscreen
There are many sunscreen brands that promote reef safe sunscreen. While many sustainable outdoor adventure and cosmetics labels are taking key steps to make ocean friendly skincare products, it is important to still check the labels. Unfortunately, there is no overarching regulating body that has legal guidelines for the use of the term 'reef safe'. This potentially opens the door for shadier companies to greenwash more environmentally conscious consumers.
As such, when looking for reef safe sunscreen, there are some key things to look out for. One of the key things to check is, perhaps unsurprisingly, that sunscreen doesn't contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. It's also best to avoid sunscreens that have parabens or nanoparticles in their ingredients lists.
Finally, as with all skincare products, always opt for products that do not contain microplastics such as exfoliating beads. This is particularly important in instances where open water swimming is likely, as the tiny plastic particles that these beads are formed from wreak havoc on ocean environments.
Selections of reef friendly sunscreen shouldn't be too hard to find at a local sustainable surf store, or can be found from some eco-friendly online retailers and organisations.
Saving the Reef, One Sunscreen Bottle at a Time
I know that there is nothing quite like a day on the waves, whether your thing is surfing, sailing, kiteboarding, scuba diving or just old fashioned swimming, the sun, sea and sand is something that many of us have a special connection with. To ensure we can enjoy spending a day by the sea until we are old and gray, it is equally important to use sunscreen to protect ourselves from the harmful impacts of UV rays.
But, this shouldn't come at the cost of the health of the seas. The chemical cocktail that conventional sunscreens are leaching out into the water and slowly killing the incredible reefs that make the ocean what it is. But, it doesn't have to be this way, while there is no perfect solution, reef safe sunscreen offers a good one. They provide a compromise between environmental protection and protection against the elements, utilizing more earth safe ingredients to create an effective skin protection product.
So, next time you head out to the waves, do the reef a favour and help save the ocean, one bottle of reef friendly sunscreen at a time.