What is reef-safe sunscreen, and why is it important?

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By Connor Fallon, Grace Springer

Graphic by Connor Fallon

Sunscreen is a product made to protect humans from the sun’s ultraviolet rays, however, some ingredients found in sunscreen put our marine life in danger.  

Reef-harming chemicals found in sunscreen are introduced into the environment when people wear sunscreen while swimming. Research says that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas annually. These chemicals can also enter the ocean from overspray of aerosol sunscreens or through shower drains while rinsing off. 

 Chemicals commonly found in sunscreens can cause permanent DNA damage to coral and the more than one million other organisms that call reefs home around the world. Coral reefs are also a vital contribution to the global economy, providing jobs, food and tourism to surrounding communities. 

Sunscreens labeled “Reef-Safe” may not be trustworthy because the term does not yet have an agreed upon definition. The most hazardous chemical ingredient, oxybenzone, has been connected to an increased rate of coral bleaching when present in ocean ecosystems, even at low concentrations. The chemical also slows down the growth rate of baby corals, causing deformities. Consult the full list of common chemicals to avoid on the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory website.  

There are 2 different types of sunscreens: chemical and mineral. Both types of sunscreens have their major pros and cons, so let’s break them down.  

While both types of sunscreens have their advantages, remember that sunscreen is not our only option for sun protection. For those looking for alternatives, the best way to protect yourself is to stay well covered, especially during the hottest hours of the day. Mineral sunscreen is the most environmentally safe and includes few harmful ingredients. 

So, what do you do?  

You’ve already taken the first major step to becoming more conscious of your habits. Now, once you get to the store it is important to remember that a mineral sunscreen with non-nano zinc dioxide as the active ingredient is the best option to protect our reefs.  

Graphic by Connor Fallon

To avoid the cloud of chemicals that ultimately lands on the sand which is then washed back into our waters, steer away from using aerosol sunscreens. The spray of an aerosol not only leaves residual chemicals on the sand but can also react with secondary pollutants to create small particulate matter and a cloud of photochemical smog. These particulate matter and smog can cause irreversible damage to the human heart and lungs. 

Some best practices include avoiding an overabundance of any sunscreen and finding other ways to protect yourself from UV rays, such as staying in the shade or covering up. 

Consult the Environmental Working Group’s Guide to Sunscreens to find alternative sunscreens that do not harm the health of coral reefs. 

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