Everybody knows that sunscreen is a necessary part of a good day at the beach. To surf until you can no longer paddle, build the most epic sandcastles, snorkel til you´re saturated by salt, or just catch some sweet waves on your boogy board. No matter what floats your boat (or even if you just want to float in a boat): sunscreen is critical.
However, recently it´s come to (UV) light that the same things we´re using to help us enjoy the ocean may actually be causing serious damage to it. Many of the ingredients used in your sunscreen could harm coral reefs and with at least 4000-6000 tonnes of sunscreen entering reefs annually, this is something that all of us sun-worshippers, reef lovers, and Planet Ocean dwellers should be concerned about.
- Anything with non-nano zinc will keep you safe in the sun (and be reef safe)
- Avoid nano particles and oxybenzone and all those other multiple-syllabled chemicals
- Remember to re-apply and cover up if you're planning a long day in the sun.
The Trouble Makers
The 4 chemicals which are usually listed as harmful to coral are oxybenzone (benzophenone-3) butylparaben, octyl methoxycinnamate (octinoxate) and 4-methylbenzilydene camphor. These are typical sunscreen additives and according to Danovaro et al. "cause the rapid and complete bleaching of hard corals, even at extremely low concentrations". Oxybenzone for example provides broad spectrum ultraviolet (UV) coverage. It´s controversial due to its links (along with several other sunscreen additives) to endocrine disruption and potentially has a similar effect on coral DNA as gasoline. One study found the toxic effects on coral include DNA damage, exacerbation of bleaching and death.
Many ´reef safe´ suncreens replace these toxic ingredients with zinc oxide and titanium oxide. You know those sunscreens which never rub in properly? Often that´s because they´re using physical blockers like these. However they may come with their own problems. Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) is used to block UV light (especially UVB) and often used together with zinc oxide (ZnO) which blocks UVA light. Recently TiO2 and ZnO are being used in nanoparticle (very very small) form. These nanoparticles may be harmful, particularly in combination with rising CO2, and have been linked to cell mutation (cancer) and cell toxicity in skin. TiO2 nanoparticles have also caused zooxanthellae expulsion (i.e. the coral kicks out a major food source).
Should I SLIP SLOP OR SLAP?
While the reefs of the world are in serious trouble from a range of things, sunscreen is one issue that is within all of our hands. Some countries (like Hawaii) are already making a move to ban harmful sunscreens, bringing in laws to make them illegal. While over-fishing, rising temperatures and pollution are all serious issues that should be taken into consideration, we can all change our sunscreen easily right now. So what can you do to be part of the solution?
Slip on a shirt. Whether it´s groovy Solsoya rashies & leggings, old t-shirts or a poncho towel, covering your skin with clothes is the most certain way to avoid a burn.
Slop on a non-nano zinc oxide based sunscreens (the least reactive UV filter, and the best for human & ocean health).
Switch your 'screen. Support local alternatives like Sun Butter or Surf Yogis made from delicious and safe ingredients.
Slap on a hat.
Be shady. Take an umbrella, find a tree, or avoid the middle of the day when the sun is at its most potent.
Most importantly: get out there in the sunshine, have fun, get salty, and be sun safe.