When you’re out at the beach getting some sun or catching some waves, it’s so important to protect your skin from sun damage and potential burns. But did you know that your favorite sunblock might be slowly killing the ocean’s coral reefs?
Some sunscreens contain chemicals that, when exposed to seawater, become absorbed by the coral and can actually disrupt the reef’s growth cycles and reproduction. This can ultimately lead to coral bleaching and coral death in some of the most beautiful coral reefs on the planet.
So how exactly does coral bleaching work, and how can you know if your sunscreen contributes to it? Let’s find out.
What is coral bleaching?
Coral are living, breathing organisms and are essentially the lungs of the oceans in the ocean. When they experience changes in their environment, such as changes in temperature, light, or exposure to certain chemicals, it causes them to expel symbiotic algae that live in their tissues. This causes the coral to lose their pigment and turn completely white, appearing to be bleached.
Between 4,000-6,000 tons of sunscreen enter the oceans every single year. This is causing irreversible damage to precious coral reefs. Once they’re damaged, it can affect the entire underwater ecosystem and requires a long and tedious process to regrow them.
In the last decade, this has become such a problem that Hawaii became the first state to announce a ban on sunscreens containing two coral-damaging chemicals by the year 2021.
Chemical Sunscreen vs. Mineral Sunscreen
To understand how sunscreen can potentially damage coral reefs, you need to understand the types of sunscreen available and which ones cause damage.
The main two categories most sunscreens fall under are chemical sunscreens and mineral/physical sunscreens.
Chemical sunscreens are the main culprit of coral bleaching because they contain active ingredients like oxybenzone, avobenzone, and octinoxate. These three ingredients have been found to cause damage to coral reefs.
The amount of oxybenzone it takes to cause damage to a coral reef can be compared to using one drop of the chemical in an Olympic sized pool. This illustrates just how little of this chemical it takes to damage such a large amount of the reefs in an area.
If you look at your label and see one of these ingredients, you’re using a chemical sunscreen.
Chemical sunscreens work by absorbing the sun’s heat energy and redispersing it back out of your skin to avoid burns and sun damage. People tend to like chemical sunscreens because they usually have less white cast and can be easier to spread and apply than mineral sunscreen.
Luckily, skincare technology has come a long way, and you no longer have to opt for these damaging chemicals to make sure your sunscreen doesn’t leave a white cast. Mineral and physical sunscreens are an excellent alternative.
Mineral or physical sunscreens mostly use two primary ingredients; titanium dioxide or zinc oxide. These are mineral-based ingredients that are sourced directly from the earth and put into products.
These sunscreens act like a mirror on the skin and work to repel the sunrays. Since they don’t get absorbed into the skin in the same way a chemical sunscreen does, they’ve been known to leave more of a white cast on the skin.
The good news is, dozens of brands have been hard at work addressing these issues, and there are more options than ever for mineral sunscreens that absorb well and leave no trace on the skin. And the best part is, they don’t contain any ingredients known to damage coral reefs.
The Best Reef-Safe Mineral Sunscreens
Here’s a breakdown of some of our favorite mineral sunscreens, none of which contain the ingredients that are most damaging to reefs.
This Drunk Elephant SPF 30 sunscreen offers broad-spectrum UVA and UVB protection. Unlike some other mineral sunscreens, it has very sheer coverage and doesn’t leave a white cast, even on darker skin tones. We also love that it has ingredients that help repel free radicals and pollution from absorbing into your skin.
Cerave’s moisturizing lotion with SPF 30 is a fantastic and affordable mineral sunscreen option that you can find at virtually any drug store. It’s at such a low price point and contains only straightforward and safe ingredients making such a good sunscreen and moisturizer duo.
Thinksport’s SPF 50 is perfect for a day in the water as it’s water-resistant for up to 80 minutes. It’s the perfect sunscreen for your entire body and doesn’t contain any biologically toxic ingredients or chemicals harmful to coral reefs. It’s also a very affordable option and offers some of the highest sun-protection out there.
Bare Republic has built its whole brand on being reef-safe and has committed to creating products that don’t damage the environment. Their mineral, SPF 30 sport sunscreen is an excellent spray-on option when you’re on the go and don’t want to be bothered rubbing in your lotion. It can be challenging to find a non-chemical spray-on sunscreen, making this a great option for a low price point.
This Supergoop! Cloud 9 Sun Balm is a 100% mineral sunscreen that’s reef safe and offers high UV protection. This sun balm is thicker and perfect for people who want to use sunscreen that doubles as a moisturizer. It’s also loaded with ultra-moisturizing ingredients to protect your skin from extreme temperatures, both hot and cold.
What to do with your chemical sunscreens
Just because you’ve realized your chemical sunscreen isn’t reef safe doesn’t mean you should just throw it away. This only contributes to more waste that can end up on our oceans and damage the earth in a different way.
Using chemical sunscreens on a day to day basis, when you’re not going in the ocean, is completely fine. They still offer great sun protection, and the ingredients in them are safe to use on your skin. You can keep using your preferred sunscreen, and switch to a reef-safe sunscreen to use when you’re out in the water.
When it comes to the sunscreen you use, it’s important to choose one that reacts well with your skin and protects your skin from the sun. But when you’re spending time in the ocean, what you put on your body ultimately ends up in the sea and can have harmful effects on sea life. So the next time you plan a beach trip, consider doing a little bit of extra research on the ingredients in your sunscreen, and other products you use, to make sure that you’re leaving as small a footprint as possible.
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