Reef-Safe Suncreens: what does it mean?

For years we’ve been hearing about chemicals in sunscreens, be careful what you put on your skin, use only sunscreens that are biodegradable or for sensitive skin. But does a biodegradable sunscreen really mean its ok for the environment? Sure, it degrades biologically over time, but does any damage happen in the time between when it dissolves in the water and when it finally biodegrades? Turns out, biodegradable does not mean reef-safe, nor does mineral based mean good for your skin. Turns out it’s much more confusing than it seems.

dive bahamas wrasses reef and coralLet’s start with what we know. Folks have been tossing around the idea of sunscreens being toxic to corals for years, a few studies narrowing it down to possibly 4 ingredients that did something funny to dormant viruses in the algae that live inside of corals. But it was so non-specific that no one really paid attention. Until last fall when a study was published in Environmental Contamination and Toxicology titled “Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” That’s a lot to unpack! Basically, it found that exposure of larval corals to certain levels of oxybenzone caused excessive calcification to the point of entombing the coral in it’s own skeleton; transformed mobile larvae to deformed, sessile states; increased rates of coral bleaching; and caused damage to the corals DNA. And the levels the coral was exposed to was then proven to be similar levels as already exist in Hawaii and the Virgin Islands!

Look at your sunscreen. Right now. Go get it, I’ll wait. Now look at the active ingredients. Betcha a nickel one of them is oxybenzone.

Don’t start feeling guilty now, you didn’t know. Now walk over to the trash and throw it out. Even if you only use it on land, everything leads to the sea and eventually that chemical will make its way to the ocean and possibly a coral reef. And if it’s doing that kind of crazy stuff to corals, do you really want it on your skin? Toss it.

Ok, so no oxybenzone, got it. Except there are a few more ingredients that are common in sunscreens that can be harmful to you.

Fine, mineral sunscreens it is, right? Well, yes, but… There’s another debate going on about nano-particles and whether or not they are safe in topical applications. The thing about nano-particles is that chemists believe that a substance is below a certain size (100 nanometers and smaller) behaves differently and can be unpredictable, even cause damage. The concern as it applies to sunscreens is the fact that these particles are so small they can absorb into your skin – and in sunscreens the whole point is that the lotion stays on top of the skin to reflect harmful UV rays. So until we know more about nanoparticles, non-nano is the safe way to go.

But yes, the non-nano mineral sunscreens are kind of pasty and leave a white residue, but they’re truly safer for everyone. If white and pasty isn’t not your thing, wear a shirt and a hat. But please, do your part to not add more oxybenzone to the ocean and contribute to the 3rd Global Coral Bleaching event, the longest one yet.

We’ll make it easy for you. Here’s a list of reef-safe and you-safe sunscreens and where you can find them online. Full disclosure, we’re an ambassador for Stream2Sea because they’re Florida based and care a lot about the same things we do (and we have a coupon that we’re happy to share with you), but any of these sunscreens are safe as well.

Stream2Sea Sunscreen

Also full disclosure, Stream2Sea tests on live fish and corals – in a lab, because right now that’s the only way to tell if what they’re doing is actually working. From their website:

We realize that testing on fish and coral may turn some people away from our products. We completely understand and respect that position—there is nothing you can say that we haven’t said ourselves. Were there proven alternative testing methods that didn’t include live fish or coral, we would be using those instead. But our reefs that get 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen annually can’t wait for that sort of testing to be developed.  We are doing what we can, now, to help lessen our impact in the long run.

But don’t take our word for it – and don’t believe everything you read on the internet! Do your own research, find your own brand, do your own part. Most importantly, spread the word.

/end soapboxrant

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