What sunscreens are best for you—and the planet?

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Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Coral reefs worldwide are facing a crisis, with sunscreen chemicals being one of the contributing factors. Each year, an alarming 14,000 tons of sunscreen make their way into the oceans, along with approximately 82,000 chemicals from personal-care products. Pollution, coastal development, and warming waters have already caused an 80 percent decline in Caribbean corals over the past five decades. However, there are solutions to help preserve these delicate ecosystems. Certain destinations, like Hawaii and Palau, have already taken steps to ban harmful sunscreens. Here’s how you can protect both your skin and the coral reefs.

The Environmental Impact:
When we swim with sunscreen on, harmful chemicals like oxybenzone can infiltrate the water, where they are absorbed by corals. These substances contain nanoparticles that disrupt coral reproduction and growth cycles, leading to bleaching. Even if you don’t swim, sunscreen can still reach the oceans through drains when you shower. Additionally, aerosol versions of sunscreen can spray significant amounts of product onto the sand, which eventually washes into the ocean.

Progressive Measures:
Although human activity has contributed to this contamination, we also have the power to help restore these fragile underwater ecosystems. Hawaii became the first state to pass a bill, effective since January 1, 2021, banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Palau, a pristine archipelago with one of the largest marine reserves globally, has also implemented a ban on sunscreens harmful to coral reefs.

Practical Steps for Reef Relief:
Even with government bans in place, there are ways to protect your skin and the coral reefs:

  1. Choose reef-safe sunscreen: Opt for mineral-based sunblocks that utilize zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, with non-nano-sized particles that cannot be ingested by corals. To confirm if a sunscreen contains nanoparticles, consult the Consumer Products Inventory.

  2. Check reputable lists: Haereticus Environmental Lab annually publishes a list of environmentally safe sunscreens. The Environmental Working Group rates products, including 650 sunscreens and 250 moisturizers, based on their environmental impact and SPF values.

  3. Avoid aerosol sprays: Aerosol sunscreens often miss their intended target and end up on the sand, where they can easily wash into the ocean. Opt for lotion or stick formulations instead.

  4. Research eco-friendly resorts: Some hotels are taking responsibility by offering reef-friendly sunscreen in “eco kits” or dispensers in public areas. Aqua-Aston properties throughout Hawaii are one such example.

  5. Embrace sun-protective clothing: Wear hats, shirts, and other UV-protective apparel to reduce the amount of sunscreen needed by up to 90 percent. These items also tend to last longer than a single bottle of sunscreen.

  6. Seek shade alternatives: Choose shady spots or bring umbrellas or beach tents to create your own shade. Beach tents often offer additional features like awnings and mini pools for added convenience.

Reefs in Peril Worldwide:
Coral reefs in various parts of the world face pollution threats, particularly in popular destinations such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Israel. These areas are especially vulnerable due to their high tourist activity. The Great Barrier Reef, with its vibrant corals and diverse marine life, attracts visitors from around the globe. Oahu’s Hanauma Bay, the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, and Israel’s Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve are also popular spots known for their rich underwater ecosystems.

The Importance of Conservation:
Preserving coral reefs is crucial not only for maintaining vital ecosystems but also for safeguarding our global economy. Reefs serve as major tourist attractions and sources of income for vacation destinations. If we don’t take action, we risk losing these invaluable natural wonders. Discover how one country is actively restoring its damaged ocean in another enlightening article.

Taking steps to choose reef-safe sunscreen and adopting responsible practices can help protect both your skin and the delicate coral reefs. By making informed decisions and being mindful of the products we use, we can contribute to the preservation of these extraordinary underwater ecosystems and ensure their longevity for future generations.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about Reef-Safe Sunscreen

What are reef-safe sunscreens?

Reef-safe sunscreens are products that do not contain harmful chemicals, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, which can negatively impact coral reefs. These sunscreens use mineral-based ingredients like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in non-nano particle sizes that cannot be ingested by corals.

How do sunscreen chemicals harm coral reefs?

Chemicals found in certain sunscreens, like oxybenzone, can seep into the water when we swim and are absorbed by corals. These substances contain nanoparticles that disrupt coral reproduction and growth cycles, leading to bleaching and damage to the reef ecosystem.

What can I do to protect coral reefs?

You can protect coral reefs by choosing reef-safe sunscreens that are free of harmful chemicals. Additionally, you can check reputable lists published by organizations like Haereticus Environmental Lab to find environmentally safe sunscreen options. Avoid using aerosol sprays, as they can easily end up on the sand and wash into the ocean. Embracing sun-protective clothing, researching eco-friendly resorts, and seeking shady spots or using umbrellas and beach tents are also helpful measures.

Why are coral reefs important?

Coral reefs are vital ecosystems that support a diverse range of marine life. They serve as breeding grounds, nurseries, and habitats for numerous species of fish, crustaceans, and other marine organisms. Coral reefs also provide protection against storms and erosion for coastal communities. Furthermore, they contribute to tourism and economic activities, attracting visitors from around the world. Preserving coral reefs is crucial for the well-being of both marine life and human communities.

Which popular destinations have at-risk coral reefs?

Popular destinations with at-risk coral reefs include Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Israel. These areas are particularly vulnerable due to high tourist activity and pollution threats. Efforts to protect and preserve these reefs are essential to maintain the biodiversity and ecological balance of these unique underwater ecosystems.

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