Reef-Safe Sunscreen: Good for Your Skin, Good for the Planet

reef-safe sunscre

Photo Credit: NadyaEugene/Shutterstock

My mother always told me that the best thing you could do to fight aging is to protect your skin from the sun. Getting your daily dose of vitamin D is important, but even more so is doing it responsibly. So as the sun comes out for the summer, we turn to the amazing invention of sunscreen, an invisible protective armor against freckles, spots, wrinkles, cancers and burns from our closest star’s rays. And boy, are there as many to choose from as there are reasons to use it!

This year, as you start stocking up on sun protection, we urge you to consider reef-safe sunblocks if you plan on going into any body of water or traveling to a destination whose environment and its denizens are an important part of its appeal.

It is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions are left in the ocean every year, their residual oils, chemicals, fragrances, and additives polluting the homes of millions of species at a compounding rate.


Why? Consider this: It is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions are left in the ocean every year, their residual oils, chemicals, fragrances, and additives polluting the homes of millions of species at a compounding rate.

After all, in destinations such as Mexico, the Dominican Republic, Costa Rica, Hawaii, Aruba, Key West, and more, you’re likely there for its natural beauty. And eco-tourism is best enjoyed when the world is presented raw and untouched. To keep it so, many tour operators and nature parks in these areas now require reef-safe sunscreen to be used in lieu of traditional formulas that may have chemicals known to hurt animal, plant, or marine life.

In fact, some local governments have even flat out banned sun lotion with certain ingredients, like oxybenzone and octinoxate. These two chemicals, although common and effective for blocking UV rays, are known to be harmful to coral, causing bleaching at best and killing them at worst. In fact, oxybenzones can disrupt the actual DNA of the coral, leaving them sterile.

You also want to stay away from octocrylene, homosalate, butylparaben, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, PABA, parabens, triclosans, and any formulas with microplastics—also known as “exfoliating beads.” And plant-based oils, although they might smell great and seem natural, may be dangerous to invertebrates. Remember, lavender, eucalyptus, and others belong on land, not in the sea.

 

Many manufacturers have answered the call to protect our marine life and planet with better formulas, and there are a slew of choices for reef-friendly, if not fully reef-safe sunscreens.


What you want to do is find a formula that uses physical as opposed to chemical barriers against UVA and UVB rays. Sunblocks labeled as mineral formulas are a good start. That narrows down your “active ingredients” list to zinc oxide. The most environmentally and health-friendly is zinc oxide in its coated, non-nano form. However, that leaves opaque white streaks that don’t absorb into your skin. Most formulas now use smaller nano-sized or micronized particles that render your sun protection invisible. The jury is split on how the smaller particles may affect marine life, but studies have shown that these smaller mineral particles don’t absorb too deeply into your skin, making it perfectly safe for your own use.

Titanium dioxide is also an option, but recent concerns have arisen from the fact that it does not biodegrade and, when mixed with warm water, may react to form hydrogen peroxide, which can cause damage to all sea life it comes in contact with.

You also want to look for water-resistant sunscreens, which means that they’re more likely to adhere to you and not wash off as you’re snorkeling among your new friends. But to be safe, seek out ones marked “tested biodegradable,” which means that it will break down naturally in time.

Fortunately, many manufacturers have answered the call to protect our marine life and planet with better formulas, and there are a slew of choices for reef-friendly, if not fully reef-safe sunscreens. What that means is that yes, some of the more harmful ingredients may appear in some form, but it’ll be in smaller quantities than in regular sunblock, or is less prone to wash off.

Regardless, reef-friendly is still better than conventional sunscreens and are no less effective than their mainstream counterparts. So what have you got to lose in being pickier about your protection, especially when switching over will help you do a world of good for the world we share.


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