Reef-Safe Sunscreen: Is Your Sunblock Harming our Coral Reefs?

by | Updated: February 7th, 2019 | Read time: 3 minutes

We’ve been told from a young age that sunscreen is critical to protect skin against cancers and sun damage, and this still holds true today. According to the American Cancer Society, reducing unprotected exposure to the sun’s UV rays is the single most important thing you can do to reduce the risk of skin cancers, including melanoma.

Woman with Reef-Safe Sunscreen Swims Near Coral Reef

What’s the big deal about sunscreen?

Did you know that commonly used UV chemical filters oxybenzone and octinoxate—found in more than 3,500 of the world’s most popular sunscreens—may be harming our oceans and the marine life that live in them? Coral reefs are especially at risk. These living organisms cover less than 1% of the ocean floor, yet they support nearly 25% of all marine life and close to one million species depend on them to survive.

Coral reefs generate millions in tourism dollars, which exposes them to a much higher concentration of sunscreen chemicals from snorkelers, divers, swimmers and surfers than any other ocean area. The National Ocean Service an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash into coral reefs each year, devastating these delicate eco-systems and contributing to the current global coral bleaching event. Coral reefs have already declined 40% in the Great Barrier Reef, 85% in the Caribbean, and 99% in the Florida Keys.

Corals are living organisms and react much like we do when they’re stressed. When we experience stress, we tend to get pale. Corals in major tourist destinations throughout the world are experiencing mass bleaching events. Bleaching happens when corals experience increased ocean temperatures, overexposure to sunlight, extreme low tides, or runoff and pollution. In normal conditions, corals have a symbiotic relationship with algae, which are the primary food source for the coral. When corals experience stress, the algae leave the coral and the corals become white or very pale and are more susceptible to disease, according to the National Ocean Service.

Scientific studies published in Environmental Health Perspectives and in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology have shown the risk that oxybenzone poses to coral reefs. These studies indicate that oxybenzone can cause adverse effects in coral at 62 parts per trillion. That’s the equivalent of just one drop of water in 6 ½ Olympic-sized swimming pools! Oxybenzone can also accumulate in fat tissues, and can pass from pregnant mothers to babies.

To put perspective on the pervasiveness of this this common UV filter: it’s been found in 97% of Americans, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Regardless of where you live, when you use sunscreen that contains oxybenzone, it will end up in our water system and eventually make it out to our oceans—whether it washes off while swimming or taking a shower after a day in the sun.

Save the reefs by choosing safer sunscreen

So what can you do to minimize the risk this harmful UV chemical has on our ocean environment? The state of Hawaii was in the news recently after passing legislation that bans the sale of over-the-counter sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and secondary common UV chemical filter, octinoxate, to help save their coral reefs. This doesn’t mean you have to choose between protecting your skin and protecting marine life; there are many safe and effective mineral sunscreens on the market that don’t use these toxic UV filters!

MyChelle has been making reef safe sun care from our start 18 years ago and has been invited to partner with independent filmmakers Malina Fagan and Lynn Pelletier to distribute education on the clear risk the recently banned ingredients pose to our environment. Set on the beaches of Hawaii, Fagan’s Award-Winning “Reefs at Risk” film uncovers the scientific effects toxic chemicals in many sunscreens have on coral reefs and marine life. While Hawaii’s ban doesn’t go into effect until 2021, many local businesses have already started implementing their own bans.

Next time you reach for sunscreen, keep the reefs (and the ocean life that depends on them) in mind! Here are some things to remember when shopping for sun protection this summer:

  • Look for sunscreens labeled as “reef safe”
  • Avoid marine-toxic chemicals, including oxybenzone, octinoxate, butylparaben, retinyl palmitate, and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Choose mineral-based, non-nano sunscreens. Zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide based to form a safe and highly effective physical layer of UV protection.

Have a sun-safe summer while doing your part to save our reefs!