It’s finally here, warm weather. Got sunscreen ? Please read this article by Garrett Munce for MensHealth. It may open your eyes to what some sunscreens are doing to destroy coral reefs.
You probably know by now that you need to be wearing sunscreen; your mother told you, your doctor has told you, hell, even we at Men’s Health have told you (many times). According to the American Academy of Dermatology, wearing sunscreen is the best protection you can get against sun damage that can lead to skin cancer. But as you slather yourself in SPF (and reapply every two hours as directed, right?), you may not have thought about how what you choose to protect your body from the sun could also have a role in protecting, or deteriorating, the environment around you.
In 2015, a group of scientists including Dr. Craig Downs, PhD, Executive Director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, was tasked by the Federal Government to figure out why coral reefs in the U.S. Virgin Islands were dying. After ruling out the usual suspects like “sewage, fuel, pesticides, and road runoff,” says Downs, they realized that there were high concentrations of chemicals found in sunscreens in the water of the highly popular tourist beaches. Their subsequent study found that there was over 14,000 tons of sunscreen in our oceans, which they have now been able to directly link to irreversible damage to coral and other marine life.
Following the growing amount of evidence that what sunscreens we put on our bodies can have a devastating effect on the environment around us, Hawaii became the first state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in 2018, two known endocrine disrupting chemical ingredients that have been shown to drastically affect ocean life. Key West followed in 2019 and around the same time the Food and Drug Administration proposed a new rule to regulate common chemicals found in sunscreens, including oxybenzone and octinoxate, pending updated testing. (Though it should be noted that the FDA is more concerned with these chemicals’ effects on humans, rather than the environment).
As a result, you’ve probably noticed more sunscreens promoting themselves as “reef safe”. But what exactly does that mean and should you make the switch? It’s complicated.
How Exactly Can Sunscreen Harm The Environment?
Ultimately it comes down to what kind of sunscreen it is. “The issue is more with chemical sunscreens because those are the ones that have been shown to accumulate [in the water],” says cosmetic chemist Ron Robinson, whereas mineral-based sunscreens like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide don’t, at least not in the same way. “[Chemicals] get absorbed by some of the marine life and cause damage and even death. Minerals sink to the bottom.” According to Downs, coral bleaching is the most visible effect of damage but it goes way beyond that. These chemicals can affect all aspects of an ocean ecosystem—from fertility issues in sea urchins and fish to killing off seaweed and other marine plant life. “Sunscreens are incredible herbicides, worse than commercial herbicides,” says Downs.
How To Choose A Reef Safe Sunscreen
One of the biggest reasons people stay away from mineral sunscreens is how they look (chalky) and feel (filmy) on their skin. That may have been true for the old-school zinc, but now formulas are smoother and easier to rub in, though may still take some getting used to. “Buy a few different sunscreens and try them all to figure out which one your skin likes best because all skin is different,” says Bhanusali. “People may have reactions to certain ingredients, so you have to play around with it.” Always choose a sunscreen that is at least broad spectrum SPF 30, as advised by the American Academy of Dermatology, and look for versions that are water resistant. Be wary of any product that doesn’t list an SPF rating, since those are substantiated and regulated by the FDA, even if some of the ingredients are not. And if you can’t find a mineral sunscreen you like, but still want to be reef safe, consider UPF clothing which still protects your skin from UV rays.
Check out the 12 best reef-safe sunscreens. We’d be willing to bet you’ll find one you like so much, you won’t even miss your old chemical screen. The reefs will thank you.
Those are just 3 of 12 reef-safe sunscreens. Click here to see all 12: