*This article has been updated for accuracy and additions June 2020
Coral Reefs are being damaged by sunscreens. Look for sunscreens that say “reef friendly”.
One would have to have been living under a rock for the past 30 years not to know how harmful direct sunlight is to our skin. Now it turns out that all the sunscreen washing off our skin into the ocean is contributing to coral reef decline.
Coral Reefs are dying due to global warming, over fishing, agricultural runoff, sewage and now the chemicals in sunscreen products. Coral reefs are experiencing something called coral bleaching. This is a complicated process but suffice it to say that the factors listed above are causing severe coral reef loss and death.
The culprits in many sunscreen products are oxybenzone and octinoxate. A recent study concluded that those chemicals harm developing coral and increase coral bleaching in existing coral reefs. While everyone is in favor of saving the coral reefs, some medical communities are concerned about an increase in skin cancer if consumers stop using sunscreens. There are about 3,500 sun protection products available to consumers worldwide that contain oxybenzone. Researchers estimate that 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions end up in coral reefs around the world every year.
On May 1, 2018, the Hawaii legislature voted to prohibit the use of all sunscreen products containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. If approved by the governor, the ban would take effect by 2021. Hawaii will be the first state to approve a law of this kind. Many Hawaiian businesses are implementing their own bans of those sunscreen products effective immediately, ahead of the requirement.
Are there sunscreen products that are safe for coral reefs yet as effective at blocking the sun’s harmful rays?
Active ingredients in sunscreens that protect our skin from the sun come in two forms – mineral and chemical filters. The most common sunscreens on the market contain the chemical filters oxybenzone and octinoxate among others. Oxybenzone is considered the most hazardous and toxic sunscreen chemical to human health as well as the environment. Sunscreens that use natural mineral filters, such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide as their active filters physically block the sun from penetrating the skin and are not as harmful.
The Environmental Working Group (EWG) published a 2020 Guide to Sunscreens. The products on their list of Best Beach & Sport Sunscreens are mostly mineral-based.
Highly rated mineral based sunscreens tend to be the ones that are the simplest. The mineral based sun products can be thick and leave a white residue so make sure you really rub them into the skin. Lotions are better than sprays which can go all over the place, not necessarily on your skin. Some manufacturers recommend a slightly different application with mineral based sunscreen. Make sure you read the directions to get full benefits.
Highly rated mineral based sunscreens:
Alba Botanica Sensitive Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30 is $5.95 for 4 oz.
TIZO 3 Tinted Face Mineral SPF 40 Sunscreen is $41.99 for 1.75 oz. It also comes in non-tinted.
Stream2Sea Reef Safe Sport biodegradable mineral sunblock SPF 30 is $16.95 for 3 oz.
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