If you love sunny seafront vacation spots, you may have heard that some Pacific island nations and the State of Hawaii have passed legislations banning sunscreens containing chemicals harmful to coral reefs.
Coral reefs, which are key marine ecosystems and biodiversity hotspots, are under tremendous pressure from climate change and rising sea temperatures causing the coral to bleach. The Great Barrier Reef in Australia – considered one of the largest living structures on Earth – saw about half of its coral dying in 2016 and 2017 because of extreme heat. Researchers at NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) recorded the first global bleaching event in 1998 with a second one in 2010, and a third one in 2015. Although warming ocean waters have been linked to coral bleaching events, other factors such as sunscreen pollution can impact coral’s health.
Whether you enjoy swimming, diving, or snorkeling, some of the sunscreen you layer up with washes off your body and enters the marine environment (even water resistant sunscreens). A 2015 study estimates that between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions are released into coral reef areas each year, many of which containing ingredients that have been shown to be harmful to corals. Four ingredients - oxybenzone (or BP-3), butylparaben, octinoxate, and 4-methylbenzylidene (4MBC) - have been shown to be highly toxic for corals, some at very low concentrations. Oxybenzone can affect and kill juvenile form of corals with concentrations as low as a single drop in 4.3 million gallons of water (about six and a half Olympic-size swimming pools)!
The nonprofit scientific organization Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL) developed a list of ingredients considered to be environmental pollutants by affecting coral reefs and other ecosystems and wildlife. The list includes:
- Any form of microplastic sphere or beads.
- Any nanoparticles size of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
- Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3, BP-3)
- Octinoxate (Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate)
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC)
- Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
- Methyl Paraben
- Ethyl Paraben
- Propyl Paraben
- Butyl Paraben
- Benzyl Paraben
What should you do?
- Read the label. The easiest way to avoid those harmful chemicals is by checking the active and inactive ingredients on your sunscreen label. Oxybenzone is the most harmful offender but make sure to check for other chemicals on the HEL List above.
- Look for mineral sunscreens. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the two main ingredients of mineral sunscreen and guard your skin against harmful UV rays. Make sure these are non-nanoparticle size as nanoparticles can also harm the environment.
- Do not rely on Reef Safe or Reef Friendly claims. These claims are unregulated and can be misleading. You should check the label to make sure the sunscreen is actually safe.
- If you buy a biodegradable sunscreen, make sure the company selling it has performed the required tests as this claim is also under-regulated.
Cover up! Do not forget that sometimes the best protection is a hat, sunglasses, and some light clothing.
Just remember: if it’s on your skin, it’s on the reef. Help us protect the oceans and marine ecosystems by checking the ingredients of your sunscreen.