Is your sunscreen killing the ocean?


Some of the ingredients in sunscreen are proven to be killing coral reefs. Source: Shutterstock

THE basic rules of the beach are: don’t swim directly after you’ve eaten, don’t go too far out to sea and top up on sunscreen as often as possible.

Swimming after eating is so parents can grab an hour’s rest without having to watch out for their kids – everyone knows that.

Staying close to shore is for safety – that’s fine.

And applying sunscreen is to protect our skin from ultraviolet (UVA and UVB) rays, also very sensible.

But hold up… have you ever wondered what the dozens of chemicals in sun lotion may be doing to the world’s oceans?

Recent studies indicate some of the chemical ingredients commonly used in sunscreen are having a harmful effect on the ocean’s coral reefs and marine life.

Despite coral reefs covering just 0.2 percent of the seabed, it is believed these crucial and irreplaceable ecosystems are home to over 25 percent of the ocean’s marine life.

Findings by Raw Elements, a Hawaii-based sunscreen company, say 40 percent of both Hawaii’s and the Great Barrier Reef’s coral has suffered bleaching, while the Caribbean only has 15 percent of non-bleached coral left and Florida Keys has as little as one percent left.

Why? Sunscreen is one of the reasons.

According to Peggy Orenstein at The New York Times, up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen is deposited in the oceans and absorbed by coral reefs annually. This is the equivalent of around 32 million bottles of sunscreen being dumped into the sea each year.

The absorption adds to the irreversible bleaching and destruction of these delicate and vital aquatic ranges. And the result is the death of precious marine life, which in turn disrupts the ocean’s complex ecosystem and harms the tourism industry.

One of the most harmful polluting chemicals found in most big brand sunscreens is oxybenzone.

While it protects human skin from burning, it bleaches coral and slows down any chance of recovery.

In 2008, a group of researchers set about investigating what different chemicals found in sunscreen are doing to the ocean and its marine life.

Published in Environmental Health Perspectives, the investigation found even a small amount of sunscreen applied to human hands and then dipped in water containing coral, resulted in fully-bleached coral in just 96-hours.

So, you can imagine what 14,000 tons of sunscreen is doing to the remaining reefs every year.

Despite works to transplant thriving coral to dying sites, these efforts alone cannot prevent the decline of these once vibrant ecosystems, unless the world’s population chip in to help.

There are ways individuals can give back to the oceans they swim in, the beaches they lounge on and the ecosystems they rely on. Here’s how:

First of all, avoid sunscreen with these harmful ingredients:

  • Oxybenzone – accelerates coral bleaching and can alter human hormone levels.
  • Octinoxate – this may show as natural, but it’s not. It is made by mixing sulfuric acid with methanol, two ingredients which cause irreversible coral bleaching.
  • Butylparabenadded to preserve sunscreen but toxic to marine life.

The extensive list can be found on the Raw Essentials website.

Do look for these ingredients:

  • Non-nano titanium dioxidea natural mineral found in the earth and non-harmful to humans.
  • Non-nano zinc oxidea powdered natural mineral ingredient used to deflect the sun which will not be absorbed by coral. It is also found in calamine lotion and nappy rash cream.

These ingredients will likely appear in natural and organic products.

It’s worth remembering chemical-filled sunscreens need 15 to 20 minutes of activation time before they protect you. Whereas natural sunscreen formulas work straight away.

However, the Environmental Health Perspectives study also found that on average, 25 percent of sunscreen applied to skin washes off in the water within 20 minutes of submersion anyway.

Essentially, the brightest way to offset your damaging footprint in the ocean and protect yourself immediately is to invest in protective swimwear and beach accessories such as a UV-resistant swim shirt and a broad sunhat.

“So you wear the UPF sun-shirt and then you apply sunscreen to your face, neck, the back of your hands, behind your ears. Think of how much less sunscreen you are using,” Dr Craig A. Downs, Ph.D. executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, recently told Travel and Leisure.

The best sunscreens on the market that give you good protection and don’t cause harm to the environment include:

Sunscreen seems to be becoming a double-edged sword. On one hand, we need to protect ourselves from potentially damaging UV rays but on the other, many of the beloved brands commonly used are having a detrimental effect on the ocean.

There is no doubt the sunscreen debate will continue to be the focus among marine biologists and environmental scientists.

But on the level of mere beachgoers, sunbathers, and snorkelers, remember we can make a significant change.

Simply buy a recommended, non-harmful sunscreen and a decent protective rash vest and help the figure of 14,000 tons of toxic product entering our oceans fall to a minimum even non-existent amount.

With any hope, our reefs may spring back to life – but action must start now.