The Right Kind of Sunscreen: Do Your Part

By Tessa Samuels and Tiffany Thio

Imagine, just for a moment, plunging deep into the most biologically diverse ecosystem on earth. You sink 150 feet down through blue water that flickers and catches the light that only the shallow areas of the ocean can catch, coming to stop by a bright calcium carbonate structure. Millions of bright, spotted, striped, speckled and patterned fish swim by, their bodies moving sand away from the surface of the coral revealing the billions of coral polyps that make up this brilliant ecosystem.

Coral reefs occupy less than one percent of the ocean floor yet are home to more than 25% of marine life. They protect coastlines — and many coastal towns — from waves and tropical storms, they are vital to the world’s fisheries, a source of medical advances, and help with carbon and nitrogen fixing. While the Great Barrier Reef is the largest reef in the world, there are hundreds of small reefs that play an equally important role in nutrient recycling and providing habitats for many marine organisms.

Something that is becoming common knowledge is the endangerment of coral reefs. Global warming, overfishing, nutrient-rich fertilizer runoff, hot water run off from power plants, pathogens, and trash alongside many other cases has impacted coral bleaching — when the water is too warm and corals expel the algae living in their tissues which places them under stress and increases the vulnerability of the populations — and the loss of our coral reefs. Another potentially dangerous activity to coral reefs is the use of sunscreen. NOAA estimates that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen washes off our bodies and into our coral reefs every year.

There are two categories of sunscreen you may have seen at your local store: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens function by first absorbing the energy of UV rays, then re-emitting them as energy of longer wavelengths that are less harmful to skin1. Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, utilize inorganic ingredients such as zinc oxide (ZnO) and titanium dioxide (TiO2) to simply reflect UV rays.3 You may say, these sunscreens work in different ways, but they achieve the same outcome, don’t they? Well, not exactly. Physical sunscreens tend to be better for the marine environment that you swim in.

Many popular chemical sunscreens contain either oxybenzone, which absorbs UVA-II (320-340 nm) and UV-B (290-320 nm)1,3, or octinoxate, which absorbs UV-B2. The presence of these two compounds in marine habitats have been linked to a whole host of detrimental environmental effects.

Research done on this issue has also informed recent policy-making. In their 2018 legislative session, the state of Hawai’i passed a bill prohibiting the sale and distribution of chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.5 The listed effects on coral reefs include, but are not limited to, decreasing the resiliency of corals toward climate change, detrimental impacts on endangered species, and increasing reproductive diseases, endocrine disruption, and causing deformities in embryonic development for certain species.5

If you are working or recreating near reefs, or in a marine habitat, choose to purchase sunscreens such as Stream2Sea instead of those containing harmful compounds. (Note: Using sun protection is extremely important for the prevention of skin cancer.) Beyond sunscreen, pollutants such as waste discharge from ships, industries, and coastal cities all have a massive impact on these coral communities. Additionally, the issue that is currently causing the most damage to coral reefs is not sunscreen, but climate change. As such, voting, working within and outside your communities to advocate for these issues, and changing the way we consume are all ways that we can change the current trajectory of the environment.

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