Modern studies have shown that certain types of sunscreen contain dangerous chemicals that are harmful to coral reefs. These chemicals prevent coral from defending themselves against stresses in the environment, which often leads to bleaching. Fortunately, there are reef-safe sunscreens that protect your skin from ultraviolet rays without harming the environment.

When looking for reef-safe sunscreens, examining the ingredients is key to avoiding harmful chemicals. Here is a quick look at how to identify the bad and the good ingredients that go into a reef-safe sunscreen.

Related: Bring your reef-safe sunscreens when visiting Key West

a person applies sunscreen to their arms at the beach

What Ingredients Are Harmful And Why?

The two main chemicals to avoid are octinoxate and oxybenzone (also referred to as benzophenone). These common chemicals found in sunscreen are meant to protect your skin from sunburns caused by UV rays and work by turning the hazardous rays into harmless heat. The only problem is that when these compounds enter the water they can actually strip the coral’s natural defenses. This opens the coral up for bleaching events and can even stunt their growth.

Once the coral system has lost its ability to defend itself, stressors in the environment can easily lead to bleaching. This includes changes in water temperatures, acidification, pollution and general diseases. If we eliminate octinoxate and oxybenzone from the equation, then corals stand a better chance at surviving changes in their environment.

How Much Sunscreen Leaches Into The Ocean?

The ocean may be vast, but even a small amount of oxybenzone or octinoxate can have devastating effects on coral. In Hawaii, for example, coral reefs have to deal with more than 6,000 tons of sunscreen lotion on an annual basis. For reference, this is about 10 times the concentration that corals can handle. But sunscreen from beach-goers is not the only source of exposure.

These harmful chemicals can reach waterways through the sewage system. Most sewage facilities are not equipped to filter oxybenzone and octinoxate. After these compounds get past the treatment plant, they often make their way to the ocean. This can lead to devastating effects on coral reefs, which is why Hawaii has banned sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate.

brown beach bag with camera blue scarf and yellow sunscreen

Other Sunscreens To Avoid

Along with oxybenzone or octinoxate, you should avoid purchasing sunscreen in an aerosol can. When sprayed on a beach, a good portion of the sunscreen hits the sand and eventually finds it way to the water. Aerosol spray is also bad for your lungs, making it a poor choice for the environment and your health.

Two other chemicals to keep an eye out for are Cylcopentasiloxane and Cyclomethicone. These are silicone-based compounds commonly found in beauty products. Although they do wonders for the skin, they have been known to harm reproductive organs in marine wildlife and disrupt endocrine systems.

What Ingredients Are Safe And Why?

Sunscreens that are safe for reefs are typically mineral based. These products usually contain zinc oxide and titanium oxide, which are safe for coral. Unlike traditional sunscreens that are absorbed into the skin, mineral-based products work by creating a protective layer on top of the skin. This layer of particles acts like a shield against the sun and are not believed to harm coral.

The only catch with mineral-based sunscreens is that they need to be classified as non-nano. Minerals should be larger than 100 nanometers if they are considered reef safe. This prevents the coral from ingesting the particles, which could lead to adverse effects.

person applies sunscreen to their arms while sitting by the pool

Look For Reef Friendly Labels

More and more companies are labeling their sunscreens as reef-safe, making it easier to find products that are better for the environment. While this is a good starting point, you should still read the ingredients list to make sure the products does not contain any harmful chemicals. Unfortunately, some sunscreens labeled reef-safe are anything but.

In fact, there are no regulations that prohibit companies from advertising their products as safe for reefs even when they are not. If the company is serious about producing a sunscreen that is actually safe for the environment, they typically have their products sent to a third party for testing. If the sunscreen passes the test, it is given a green certification.

How To Best Protect The Ocean

The first step is to purchase sunscreens that are safe for reefs. Apart from that, avoid wearing personal care products when you hit the beach. As a general rule of thumb, the less chemicals we put in the water the better. If you are overly concerned about UV rays, considering going to the beach before or after midday. You can also wear more clothing to protect your skin and invest in a good beach hat.

At the end of the day, the most important thing to keep in mind is choosing the right sunscreen. It is always a good idea to protect yourself from harmful UV rays, and using reef-safe sunscreen is the best choice for your health and the environment.

Via Chasing Coral, Ocean Conservancy

Images via Shutterstock