Is Your Sunscreen Reef Safe?
Did you know that one of the growing threats to our coral reefs lives in your beach bag?
Sunscreen, or more specifically the chemicals found in many sunscreens, are contributing to coral bleaching and the subsequent death of our beautiful reefs.
In this episode I share what to look for in an eco-friendly sunscreen, and in particular how to ensure your sunscreen is reef safe.
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It’s no secret that reefs worldwide are under pressure from threats like climate change, ocean acidification, sedimentation, overfishing, and pollution from industrial and agricultural activities.
But did you know that one of the growing threats to our reefs lives in your beach bag?
Sunscreen, or more specifically the chemicals found in many sunscreens, are contributing to coral bleaching and the subsequent death of our coral reefs.
In a 2008 survey, researchers at Italy’s University of Marche estimated that 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers annually in oceans worldwide, and that up to 10 percent of coral reefs are threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching (source).
How Does Sunscreen Damage Coral Reefs?
Four ingredients commonly found in sunscreen: paraben, cinnamate, benzophenone, and a camphor derivative, can awaken dormant viruses in the symbiotic algae zooxanthellae than live inside reef-building coral species.
These chemicals cause the viruses to replicate until their algae hosts explode, spreading the viruses into the surrounding seawater where it can infect adjourning coral communities.
Zooxanthellae provide coral with food energy through photosynthesis and contribute to the organisms’ vibrant colour. Without the algae, the coral bleaches, turns white and dies.
According to the study, the effect is not dose dependent. This means that the exposure of coral to a very small dose of sunscreen is enough to produce a cascading effect.
How to Choose a Reef Safe Sunscreen
One of the simplest ways you can continue to enjoy the ocean without frying to a crisp is to choose a reef-safe sunscreen.
Reef-safe sunscreens use physical filters like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which reflect rather than absorb ultraviolet radiation. The bonus is that reef-safe sunscreens are generally also natural and eco-friendly sunscreens. They’re better for you and our environment!
Always look at ingredient lists to make sure reef-damaging substances (such as oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidine camphor, all of which have been shown to cause coral bleaching even at low levels) aren’t included.
It’s equally important to choose a sunscreen that is safe for your own health. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) compiles an annual list of top sunscreen choices, based on efficacy and toxicity. Scientists review more than 1,400 sunscreen products and rank them on a hazard scale of 0-10; 0-2 is low-hazard, 3-6 is moderate hazard and 7-10 is high hazard. You can review the complete list HERE.
Once you’ve found your favourite reef-safe sunscreen, be sure to apply it at least 10-15 minutes before going in the water so that the lotion absorbs into your skin and is less likely to wash off into the ocean.
While other threats such as coastal pollution, overfishing, and sedimentation are a greater threat to our reefs than sunscreen, it’s important to take action at the individual as well as collective level to improve the health of our oceans. Choosing a reef-safe sunscreen will ensure you stay protected and minimise your impact on coral reefs, and indeed our environment as a whole.
Over to You!
Are you an ocean lover and have already made the switch to a reef-safe sunscreen? Share your favourite brand below!
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