As summer approaches, sunscreen becomes a daily necessity. You have probably walked the aisles of your local drugstore overwhelmed by the wall of sunscreen choices. Some claim to be moisturizing, ultra-sheer, waterproof, and natural, among other things. Besides the claims on all of these bottles, there are different forms of sunscreen: sticks, sprays, and liquids. Overwhelmed by choice, you have probably just grabbed the cheapest bottle or the one with the best packaging saying to yourself, “It’ll do the job.” But have you ever actually looked at what is in sunscreen or considered the impact of the one you choose?
Looking past all the clever marketing schemes, the most important words to look for are these two: Reef Safe. What makes coral reefs worth protecting? Coral reefs are essential living habitats that are home to over a million different species of marine life. They promote biodiversity and play a major role in maintaining food chains. Reefs also provide necessary nutrients for marine animals and protect coasts from waves and tropical storms.
Using sunscreen not safe for coral reefs directly harms the reefs, as well as those that live in them. Common harmful sunscreen ingredients include Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Benzophenone-1, and many more that can induce coral bleaching, damage the coral’s DNA, and deform or kill young coral. In addition to damaging just the coral reefs, these harmful chemicals can also deform or even kill some of the animals that live in the reefs.
It is reasonable to think “I don’t use very much” or “What’s one extra person?” However, each person using sunscreen unsafe for coral reefs is adding to the problem. Each bottle of sunscreen adds up. Every year between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen is washed off of swimmers and into coral reefs.
Unlike many worldwide environmental issues where finding solutions is challenging and complex, saving coral reefs is much simpler. Individuals can make a big difference by looking for and purchasing only reef-safe sunscreen. This easy action can go a long way toward solving the problem. Though it is usually more expensive and it does take an extra minute to check the labels, these extra steps are helping to save the lives of millions of animals. Even if you don’t plan on swimming outside near coral reefs, it is important to remember that marine life is everywhere and each species is important in maintaining a healthy marine ecosystem. Also, sunscreen washed off from swimming or showering inland will eventually find its way into the ocean, even if it takes extra time to reach it. If reef-safe sunscreen is too expensive for your budget or unavailable to you, there are other ways to protect yourself from the sun. These may include rash guards, sun hats, scarves, other types of sun protection, or limiting sun exposure altogether.
Next time you are at the drugstore, consider the decisions you are going to make. Think beyond yourself and instead think of the millions of creatures that live under the sea. Coral reefs are living homes for millions of animals and are the binding that holds together ocean ecosystems. As you are reaching for the sunscreen, you are making a choice: the choice to either protect these fragile environments and animals, or not.
Please use the resources below for additional resources, information, and pictures.
Bauer, Adriana. “Importance of Coral Reefs - Biodiscovery and the Great Barrier Reef - Queensland Museum.” Importance of Coral Reefs - Biodiscovery and the Great Barrier Reef - Queensland Museum, www.qm.qld.gov.au/microsites/biodiscovery/05human-impact/importance-of-coral-reefs.html.
“Reef Safe Sunscreens Explained - Badger.” W.S. Badger Company, Inc, www.badgerbalm.com/s-35-coral-reef-safe-sunscreen.aspx.
US Department of Commerce, and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Sunscreen Chemicals and Coral Reefs.” Skincare Chemicals and Marine Life, 1 Nov. 2018, oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/sunscreen-corals.html.