Do you know what is in your sunscreen?

Next time you go to purchase a sunscreen, take a moment and check the list of ingredients. You may be surprised to learn that the majority of commonly available sunscreen preparations contain chemicals that are contributing to the destruction of coral reefs around the world.

Don’t just take our word on the subject. Here are just a few articles to get you started…

Just in case you’re not much of a reader, let me just summarize a few facts for you…

  • A staggering 14,000 tons of sunscreen finds its way into our oceans every year and that number is growing rapidly.
  • Oxybenzone and it’s derivitives (BPs), are used extensively in sunscreen and other personal products. A concentration of just 0.1% is enough to cause coral bleaching. To put that into perspective, that’s one drop in 6.5 Olympic sized swimming pools.
  • BPs are also toxic to the algae that co-exists with coral. It breaks down the DNA of the algae causing it to be susceptible to disease which then spreads like a virus when the algae dies.
  • Nano Zinc Oxide, another common ingredient, damages the tiny plankton that forms the basis of the reef food chain.

What can we do about it?

Obviously, we need to protect ourselves from the harmful effects of overexposure to the sun. At the same time, we need to find a balance between our own self-protection and the protection of our marine environment. We have all been drilled on the harmful effects of over-exposure to the sun’s damaging rays. Yet somehow, we’ve become accustomed to reaching for that tube of sunscreen before considering other options. Using sunscreens is without doubt a useful tool in the defense against skin cancer but it is not the only defense. One thing we can do is start thinking of sunscreen as a tool of last resort rather than our first option.

Our first line of defense is to always avoid over-exposure. Sure, there are times when you can’t avoid being in direct sunlight and we have other options to fall back on. If you can, though, find some shade or cover when and where possible.

If there is no other shelter to be had then create your own. Cover Up! Wear a wide-brimmed hat in preference to a peaked (baseball) cap. Put your shirt (long-sleeved, preferrably) back on. If you’re going into the water, consider using a rash-guard, wetsuit or other suitable material option. You can cut down on nearly 50% of the sunscreen you would normally use, just by adding a long sleeve rashie to your beach bag!

We are certainly not advocating that you cease using sunscreen altogether. Instead we strongly urge you to avoid using preparations that contain any of the ingredients listed in the table below. Look for natural, bio-degradable, reef-friendly sunscreens. Just because it says “environmental” or “reef friendly” on the packaging, don’t assume that it actually is – read the list of ingredients! Also, plan ahead, don’t wait for the last moment and assume you can just pick something up at the local gift shop or pharmacy. Chances are you will be stuck with no option other than the commonly available brands with ingredients of dubious toxicity.

Don’t forget – when you hop in the shower or bath after a day in the sun, covered in sunscreen, all that sunscreen you are washing off is going to find it’s way back into our ocean, rivers and streams. Most water treatment plants around the world today are not able to remove many of the harmful chemicals in sunscreens.

To learn more…

We are not here to endorse any one particular product. We hope you’ll do some research on your own and make the right choice for you and your loved ones. To help you out, we compiled a few resources below to help you make your own informed choice.

Environmental Working Group is a good place to start. They have published a cosmetics database where you can find lots of helpful information on a range of skin care products and the ingredients they contain.

Tropical Snorkeling (Piehl & Atkins) publishes a pretty good list of sunscreens and regularly tests products on the market.

Scuba Travel (Studholme, 2017) and Natural Society (Fidler, 2017) both have quick guides on what to look our for when you’re buying sunscreen.

Harmful Ingredients

Please Note: We have not personally evaluated the chemicals listed here. We are not qualified to render any scientific judgement one way or the other. We are relying on third party analysis which we have taken in good faith. We are simply alerting you to the possibility that one or more of the listed chemicals may be detrimental to your personal health or the marine environment and we rely on your personal judgement to verify or dispute the varacity of the third party information provided.

Information Source: Envionmental Work Group

Octocrylene Octinoxate
Oxybenzone
…or Benzophenone-3
Avobenzone
…or BUTYL METHOXYDIBENZOYLMETHANE
Dioxybenzone Homosalate
Phenylbenzimidazole
…or Ensulizole
Octyl Salisyclate
Sulisobenzone 4-Methylbenzylidene
Dimethyl Apimide Cinnoxate/Cinnamate
Menthyl Anthranilate Cetyl Dimethicone
Polyethaline Methiparaben
Padimate O/PABA Trolamine Salisyclate
Butylcarbamate Propylparaben
Butylparaben Hexyldeconole
Nano-particles Titanium coated in Aluminium or Dimethicone

Further References

  1. Fidler, J. (2017, May 24). How to Pick a Sunscreen That’s Safe for Coral Reefs and Aquatic Life. Retrieved from naturalsociety.com: http://naturalsociety.com/pick-sunscreen-safe-for-coral-reefs-aquatic-life-1984/
  2. Jasa, A., Russell, D., Irons, O., & Litchman, Z. (2017, April 25). THE EFFECTS OF SUNSCREEN ON CORAL REEFS. Retrieved from DEBATING SCIENCE: https://blogs.umass.edu/natsci397a-eross/the-effects-of-sunscreen-on-coral-reefs/
  3. Piehl, G., & Atkins, N. (n.d.). Best Snorkeling Sunscreen. Retrieved from tropicalsnorkeling.com: http://www.tropicalsnorkeling.com/best-snorkeling-sunscreen.html
  4. Skincare Chemical Threatens Coral Reefs. (2015, November 15). Retrieved from National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration: https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/nov15/sunscreen-corals.html
  5. Studholme, J. (2017, February 12). Which sunscreens are safe for sea life? Retrieved from http://news.scubatravel.co.uk/: http://news.scubatravel.co.uk/sunscreens-safe-sea-life-coral.html
  6. Vesper, I. (2017, February 03). Hawaii seeks to ban ‘reef-unfriendly’ sunscreen. Retrieved from nature.com: https://www.nature.com/news/hawaii-seeks-to-ban-reef-unfriendly-sunscreen-1.21332