Reef-Friendly Sunscreens

By Shelbi Favre / September 29, 2017
Sunscreen tips

We all know how important sunscreen is to the protection of our skin, but when you slather yourself in SPF 30, here’s what you may not know: Your sunscreen may be unintentionally causing damage to the environment—namely, the ocean’s coral reefs.

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG.org), 25 percent of the sunscreen you apply washes off the skin and into the water within 20 minutes. Some 25 to 60 million bottles worth of sunscreen chemicals wash off into coral reef areas every year. And, you don’t even need to be in the ocean to cause coral reef damage. If you wear sunscreen in your daily life, and wash it off in the shower, your sunscreen can end up back in the ocean via wastewater through your shower drain.

The National Park Service explains that while coral reefs make up less than one percent of the ocean floor, they are one of its most diverse ecosystems, as they are home to almost one million species of ocean life. Common chemicals in sunscreen—and ones to avoid, such as butylparaben, octocrylene, octinoxate, 4MBC and oxybenzone—can “awaken coral viruses,” according to the National Park Service, causing the coral to “[become] sick and expel their life-giving algae.” As a result of no longer having those algae, the coral reef can become white and die.

According to a study published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, oxybenzone, the main reef-killing chemical culprit in sunscreen, causes DNA and endocrine damage in coral reefs, leading to death. Almost a quarter of the ocean’s species make their homes in the reefs, and as the reefs die, they would end up homeless.

Unfortunately, there is no independent certification to guarantee that a sunscreen is completely harmless to the coral reefs, though some sunscreens may claim to be “reef-safe” or “reef-friendly.” But like the words, “natural” and “nontoxic,” according to the EWG, “reef-friendly” claims are unregulated and don’t actually mean much.

You will need to read the ingredient label to know what to avoid. Look for sunscreens with active ingredients titanium oxide or zinc oxide instead of the chemical versions. These are also the only two ingredients that offer full-spectrum protection from UVA and UVB rays and, according to the National Parks Service, have not been found harmful to corals.

The best thing we can do, both for our skin and the environment, is cover up more and only apply sunscreen to exposed skin—i.e., wear wet suits and long-sleeved shirts during long days spent boating, snorkeling, surfing—to minimize our exposure.

Try: Erbaviva Sunscreen SPF 30, thedetoxmarket.com; Eco Lips SPF 15 Lip Balm, ecolips.com; Eminence Organic Skincare Tropical Vanilla Body Sunscreen SPF 32, eminenceorganics.com; Babo Botanicals SPF 30 Clear Zinc Sunscreen Lotion, babobotanicals.com


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