She Chose Biodegradable Sunscreen, and Now She’s Saving Coral Reefs

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Using sunscreen is vital for keeping our skin safe, but Mary Katherine “MK” Futrell knows not all sunscreen is safe for the environment. While in high school, Futrell learned about the harmful impacts of sunscreen on coral reefs. She made sunscreen the focus of her Girl Scout Gold Award project. She has led a global campaign advocating for eco-friendly sunscreens, helping people make more responsible sunscreen choices worldwide.

How Sunscreen Can Damage Coral Reefs 

“Not all sunscreens are bad,” Futrell explains, “But there are a lot of sunscreens that have oxybenzone and other chemical ingredients that can cause coral bleaching.”

According to the National Ocean Service, coral bleaching is when the ocean environments contain dead corals and lack photosynthetic algae to live inside of them. As a result of the chemical interaction from sunscreens, corals expel these algae, causing white, dry, and mostly dead coral reefs.

Most sunscreens are helpful for humans to protect their skin from harmful UV rays, but they are not biodegradable. Futrell learned that even “one drop of chemical sunscreen in an Olympic pool of water is enough to damage a coral reef.”

Project ReefLove to the Rescue

It prompted Futrell to evaluate her skin care products. “It was frustrating at first … seeing that my sunscreens were harming the environment,” she says. “One of the most important things in being committed to making a change is making a change within yourself and your activities.” 

It was the birth of Project ReefLove, Futrell’s Girl Scout Gold Award project that would eventually bring her across the United States, raising awareness for coral reef safety. 

“One of the things I learned from Girl Scouts was hands-on, tactile learning and how important that is,” Futrell tells CircleAround. “It’s important for kids to learn by doing.” 

So she traveled to almost every national park in the U.S. She used the lessons from her work to develop a series of interactive demonstrations and experiments to show the differences between biodegradable sunscreens versus chemical-based ones and how damaging the latter can be.

Educating Thousands

Futrell’s in-person classes were adapted to virtual lessons and resources for educators looking to supplement science programs in their schools. Her digital campaign exploded from there, reaching more than 11,000 people in over 20 countries. 

It also reached the Girl Scouts of the USA (GSUSA). They saw Futrell’s elevated service project and awarded the high schooler the title of National Gold Award Girl Scout, one of the highest honors in the organization. The role offered her mentorship opportunities and speaking engagements, like when she represented the Girl Scouts at the 2019 Girls Speak Out Summit hosted by the United Nations.

Women in STEM Working Together

Futrell was also lucky to work with several marine biology specialists and mentors in the field, including Dr. Cheryl Woodley, program manager at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, and Dr. Catherine Toline, a marine scientist at the National Park Service.

“I had these two female scientists to look up to, who took me under their wing,” Futrell tells CircleAround. “They showed me, ‘Hey, your ideas matter.’ I met them, and they said, ‘You can't change everything, but you can change one thing. And if everybody changes one thing, you can make a big change.’”

A Brighter Future for Coral Reefs

Futrell’s passion for showing people the importance of choosing biodegradable sunscreen options is helping preserve coral reefs worldwide. 

“I discovered through working on my project that it's not me as one person; it's me reaching out to other people, who can reach out to other people. You build a network of people who are also passionate about sustainability and care a little about what you care about.” 

The Bottom Line

The Girl Scout alum knows more work is needed, and it’s never too late to start. Through individual responsibility, resourcefulness, and education, it is possible to make the world a better place, one bottle of eco-friendly sunscreen at a time.

Tags: Education, Environment, Girl Scout

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Written By

Katka Lapelosová

Katka is a writer from New York City, currently living in Belgrade, Serbia. See Full Bio

CircleAround is owned by One GS Media, a subsidiary of Girl Scouts of the USA, and we make financial distributions to benefit the next generation of Girl Scouts. We strive to make the world a better place by supporting each other today and emboldening the women leaders of tomorrow.

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