Is your sunscreen damaging coral reefs (and your skin?)

By Natalie Banks - Managing Director, Azraq

Summer is here and adventurers, who love the outdoors and the ocean, understand why it is important that we take steps to reduce the chances of sunburn. More often than note however, people will grab for the sunscreen as the main option.  Apart from preventing nasty sunburn, sunscreen has been promoted for years as a product that reduces sun damage.

But what many people do not realise is that some of the most popular sun protection products contain chemical additives that can be harmful not only for ourselves, but also for the environment we enjoy.

When sunscreen washes off it can leave chemical residues behind that may be harmful to marine life, particularly coral reefs — a concept supported by a 2008 study published in the peer-reviewed journal Environmental Health Perspectives.

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) in the United States has played a large role in this space for almost 12 years now, annually producing a sunscreen guide that highlights how safe popular sunscreens are. The results over the years have been amazing, with 75% of the products examined offering inferior sun protection or containing worrisome ingredients like oxybenzone, a hormone disruptor, or retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that may harm skin. And despite scant evidence, governments still allow most sunscreens to claim they help prevent skin cancer.

Oxybenzone has been a worrying ingredient in sunscreen for marine conservationists and scientists for years. In 2005, Craig Downs, Ph.D., a forensic ecotoxicologist found that oxybenzone can damage coral DNA and could lead to corals and reef organisms becoming sterile and dying as a result. Not only that, but oxybenzone could be contributing to coral bleaching. “And once those reefs die, we’ve found they’re not coming back,” Downs reported. “They’re just crumbling to dust.”

A recent study found it only takes a tiny amount of toxic sunscreen to kill coral. One drop of sunscreen in 3.9 million gallons / 15 million litres of water is all it takes to damage a reef.

The issue has become urgent enough that parts of Mexico have gone so far as to ban products with oxybenzone (which studies have shown is also damaging to sea urchins, fish, and mammals) and other threatening chemicals from its eco-reserves. Additionally, Hawaii has just recently become the first US state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate; two common chemicals found in some of the most popular sunscreens around the world.

The good news is that eco-conscious companies are taking matters into their own hands, formulating sunscreens and hydrating lotions that don’t contain oxybenzone and are (hopefully) less detrimental to the underwater environment.

Since 2007, the EWG has found a dramatic increase in the availability of mineral-only sunscreens, doubling from 17 percent of products to 34 percent in 2017. Sunscreens using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tended to rate well in their analysis; they are stable in sunlight, offering a good balance between protection from the two types of ultraviolet (UV) radiation – UVA and UVB – and often don’t contain potentially harmful additives.

Additionally, since 2010, the EWG has seen a dramatic decrease in sunscreens containing retinyl palmitate from 40 percent to 14 percent in 2017. Retinyl palmitate has been linked to increased skin tumours and lesions on animals treated with this ingredient and exposed to sunlight.

So what can eco-conscious sun lovers do to help protect and conserve the marine environment they love?

Choose to cover up rather than slather on. A long-sleeved rash guard with UV protection is a better environmental choice than any sunscreen. Additionally, wear suitable shirts, hats and pants that shield your skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays; reducing burn risk by 27%

Plan around the sun. Enjoy your outdoor activities early in the morning or in the late afternoon if you can, when the sun is lower in the sky.

Find shade – or make it. Picnic under a tree or take a canopy to the beach. Keep infants in the shade, reducing the risk of multiple burns by 30%

Read the label: avoid sunscreens containing oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate or 4-methylbenzylidine camphor. Even a small amount can cause coral bleaching.

Avoid getting burned. Red, sore and blistered skin means you’ve gotten far too much sun.

Check the UV Index. The UV Index provides important information to help plan outdoor activities in ways that prevent sun overexposure.

Sunglasses are essential. Not just a fashion accessory, sunglasses protect your eyes from UV radiation.

Apply sunscreen at least 15 minutes before going in the water so the product can absorb into your skin. This also improves its effectiveness.

Rub It In—Don’t Spray It Opt for SPF lotions and creams instead of sprays, which are more likely to stick to the sand than your skin. When the tide comes in, this chemical-covered sand is then carried out into the ocean, which can lead to additional contamination. Also troubling: When it rains, this sunscreen residue can seep underneath the sand, where sea turtles often lay eggs.

Choose a product without plastic packaging! This is my biggest gripe about sunscreens which people often forget. Plastic is a major concern for ocean environments and is almost in the news daily in terms of its effects on marine animals. There are now sunscreen products available in metal containers, which can be reused afterwards, or better yet, go naked! I mean go without the packaging if you can. Sunblock bars are available on the market and if these didn’t come with the plastic wrapper, they would be perfect!

NOTE: An edited version of this article first appeared in the June 2018 Divers for the Environment edition.