Everything you need to know about reef-friendly sunscreens

The best reef-friendly sunscreens to buy

Sun protection is the most vital protective step in your daily skincare routine, helping ward of the damaging effects of harmful UV rays, including sunburn, premature ageing and more.

But when we enter the ocean, that protection can wash off and pose a risk to marine life and fragile coral reefs. The active ingredients in sunscreen, chemical, mineral or otherwise, are so small that the particles can seep into the ocean and be ingested by corals.

Naturally, it’s easy to dismiss the flow-on effect of one’s application of sunscreen having any real impact on the ocean; how could a few weeks of swimming in the sea each summer or on that 10-day holiday in the Islands here and there be enough to damage the ocean’s ecosystem?

But it turns out, a little goes a long way.

According to Lonely Planet, more than 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen are washed off swimmers, surfers, snorkelers and the like, each year. The coral-harming culprits? Two well-studied chemicals called oxybenzone and octinoxate which have been proven to devastate marine life by disrupting coral’s reproduction and growth cycles, ultimately leading to bleaching.

It’s no surprise chemical sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate have been banned in Hawaii, Florida, and the Western Micronesian island of Palau. But if these two chemicals can disrupt an entire ecosystem, it begs the question: what on earth are they doing to our skin?

Save the reef and your skin

Common active ingredients in chemical sunscreens such as homosalate, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, and coral-harming oxybenzone and octinoxate –  not to mention parabens and phthalates – make for one hormone-disrupting, skin irritating, coral-harming cocktail.

These ingredients interfere with the body’s endocrine system by decreasing or increasing (depending on the chemical) the production of hormones, with far-reaching effects on the developmental, reproductive, and immune systems.

That being said, making the switch to mineral (or physical) sunscreen may keep your health in the balance, but a closer look at their ingredients is required if you want to ensure your sunscreen is reef-friendly. The active minerals that protect against UVA and UVB rays in mineral sunscreen – zinc oxide and titanium dioxide – can also be ingested by ocean creatures and coral algae if the particles are too small. Look out for terms “non-nano” if you’re serious about doing your bit to save the ocean’s coral.

Why we should care for coral reefs

Coral reefs are fragile ecosystems. While they may only cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, they support more than 25% of all marine life and are considered to be the most biodiverse ecosystems in the world — surpassing even that of a tropical rainforest.

As studies continued to suggest the damaging effect of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, major sunscreen companies have addressed their formulas to provide “reef friendly” or “coral-friendly” sun protection. But, for the most part, these harmful chemicals still run rampant in popular sunscreen lotions.

What to look out for when choosing a reef-safe sunscreen:

  • If you spot oxybenzone and octinoxate listed in the ingredients, you should promptly return the sunscreen to the shelf. These two chemicals pose the greatest harm to the coral reefs, including coral bleaching, and should be avoided.

  • The active ingredients you do want to be able to spot in mineral-based sunscreens are ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Instead of being absorbed into the skin like traditional sunscreen, these minerals sit on top of the skin and block the harmful UV rays which means they’re better for you and for corals.

  • When inspecting mineral-based sunscreens, look out for ingredients that are “non-nano”. This basically indicates that the particles are above a size (100 nanometers) that corals can’t ingest.

  • Unfortunately, there’s no regulation of labels that claim to be reef-safe or reef-friendly, so it’s always important to check the contents of the ingredients yourself. Find out about more greenwashing tactics here.

Reef-friendly sunscreen picks:

Words: Erin Berryman
Photo: Getty Images

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