How Choosing Sunscreen Can Help Protect Coral Reefs

You might consider yourself ecologically aware and keen to uphold an environmentally sustainable travel ethic, but something likely used on all your beach holidays is extremely harmful to sensitive marine ecosystems.  That something is sunscreen.  Of course, no one wants to end up with skin cancer because of a healthy desire to swim in the ocean, but certain sunscreens can be incredibly toxic to coral reefs and other marine life.  In this post, we talk about how choosing sunscreen can help protect coral reefs.

How Does Sunscreen Harm Coral Reefs?

It’s been estimated that over 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen ends up in the oceans every year.  You might think that almost anything in that quantity would have some sort of effect on coral reefs.  But ultimately, it comes down to the chemicals found in sunscreen and how they interact with coral and other marine life.  Certain sunscreen chemicals promote the growth of green algae which can smother coral and blunt its growth.  Some chemicals get concentrated in coral tissues and can promote bleaching or alter its DNA.  Other chemicals can cause reactions in other marine life such as anemones, sea urchins and mussels which have a secondary effect on coral.  Ultimately, several of the chemicals that make sunscreen effective for humans can have deleterious effects on coral reefs.

What Are The Sunscreen Chemicals That Harm Coral Reefs Most?

Some tourist destinations, such as Hawaii and Thailand, have banned sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate.  These have been found to be two of the most harmful chemicals for coral reefs.   You might also want to check your sunscreen for the compounds and chemicals listed here as they have all been identified as harmful to coral reefs and other marine life: parabens, triclosan, benzophenone-1, benzophenone-8, PABA, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-benzylidene camphor and octocrylene.

How Particle Size Can Affect Coral Reefs

Another factor that affects coral growth is the size of the particle.  For example, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are minerals that are generally considered safe for coral reefs, yet can be harmful if the particles are less than 100 nanometers in size.  When the particles are that small, coral can absorb them which can lead to bleaching and subsequent death. 

How Choosing Sunscreen Can Help Protect Coral Reefs

Choosing an appropriate sunscreen can help protect coral reefs.  Look for sunscreens that don’t contain any of the above-listed compounds while also looking for labeling stating “non–nano” or “micro-sized.”  You also need to beware of microplastics.  These can be listed as exfoliating beads, but are more often identified by their chemical names:  acrylates/C10-30 alkyl acrylate crosspolymer, acrylates/C12-22 alkyl methacrylate copolymer, carbomer, dimethicone, hydroxyethyl acrylate/sodium acryloyldimethyl taurate copolymer, triacontanyl PVP, VP/eicosene copolymer and VP/hexadecene copolymer.

What Else Can You Do To Protect Yourself And Coral Reefs?

Sunscreen directions generally advise applying it 30 minutes before being exposed to the sun.  Following this rule before going into the water will also help protect marine life.  After a half hour, more sunscreen is absorbed by your skin and less is washed off into the water.  You might also want to look into Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) sunwear which can vastly reduce the need for wearing sunscreen.  Conversely, while not as effective, even wearing regular clothing, such as a T-shirt or leggings, in the ocean can help reduce the amount of sunscreen necessary. 

Where to Buy Reef Safe Sunscreen?

There are a number of locally made, reef friendly sunscreens available in Roatan. The Roatan Marine Park store carries a selection and is conveniently located in West End. You can also find reef safe sunscreen online and purchase before you leave on vacation to Roatan. We love the brand Stream2Sea and you can find their website here

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