It’s no secret that wearing sunscreen is one of the most important protective measures we can take against sunburns, skin cancer, discoloration, and signs of aging. The sun’s UV rays can cause extreme damage to our skin, and sunscreen is the weapon we have been given to fight it.
However, while sunscreen is incredibly beneficial to us, that’s not always the case for the environment.
How your sunscreen could be harming ocean environments
There are two types of sunscreen: mineral sunscreens and physical sunscreens. Mineral sunscreens are made using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide which reflect UV rays, whereas physical sunscreens use chemical ingredients that soak up UV rays and convert them into heat.
Either option of active ingredients will keep your skin from getting burned or discolored which is great for our personal benefit, but physical sunscreens are where the environmental stress comes into play.
Physical sunscreens are often formulated with oxybenzone and octinoxate which seep into the ocean when you swim or can even trickle down the drain when you shower.
Once they end up in the ocean, they can be immensely harmful to coral and other marine life even at low concentrations. According to a study done by the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, there are four major toxic effects on coral: increased susceptibility to coral bleaching, DNA damage, abnormal skeleton growth, and deformities of baby coral.
Coral is critical for underwater ecosystems, and our economy. Coral ecosystems are a source of food and habitat for millions of fish species, they protect coastlines from storms and erosion, are a source of new medicines, and are hotspots of marine biodiversity. The fish that need coral reefs to survive go on to provide jobs and income to local economies from fishing, recreation, and tourism. In short: without coral reefs, ocean life and human life will suffer.
The numbers are shocking: according to National Geographic, 14,000 tons of sunscreen are thought to wash into the oceans each year; and about 80 percent of corals in the Caribbean have been lost in the last 50 years. These chemical sunscreen ingredients have also been found to be toxic to other sea creatures such as fish, algae, mussels, sea urchins, and shrimp.
For the sake of ocean health and the environment as a whole, It’s in our best interest to try to limit the number of sunscreen chemicals that end up in the ocean.
What you can do to help
Hawaii, the Key West and Aruba, have gone as far as to ban chemical sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, which is a step in the right direction for the environment, but not many other states or countries have enforced similar laws, so oceans continue to suffer.
In order to minimize the amount of damaging chemicals in the ocean, it’s up to individuals to decide for themselves to choose a mineral sunscreen free of harmful chemical ingredients.
We should all also try to limit sunscreen usage as much as possible. Wear protective sun gear like hats and clothes that cover your body and try to stay in shaded areas. When you do have to lather on sunscreen, keep reading to learn how to choose a sunscreen that’s as reef-safe as possible.
How to know if your sunscreen is really reef safe
Just because sunscreen is labeled reef safe, it does not mean that it actually has no negative effects on the ocean ecosystem. Brands are required to be truthful with their labeling and advertising, but there is no agreed upon definition of “reef-safe” so some claims may be a stretch.
Oxybenzone and octinoxate are the ingredients most heavily marketed as unsafe for the ocean, but other ingredients including parabens, triclosan, benzophenone, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, OD-PABA, and 3-Benzylidene camphor all have negative effects on ocean life. Even mineral sunscreens can include harmful ingredients if they use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide with nano-particles which can be toxic in high concentrations.
Be a careful consumer, and make sure to read all of the ingredients thoroughly to make sure they are free of the aforementioned ingredients. You may have to do some further research as to whether mineral sunscreens use nano-particles or not, but taking the time to do so is how you can play your part in protecting our oceans. It’s the least we can do for something that brings so much joy to our summers spent at the beach.
Cleure is doing our part by formulating our mineral SPF 30 sunscreen to be free of all of these chemicals, and we don’t use nano zinc oxide and iron oxide. We also use recyclable plastic to package our products so if they’re properly disposed of, they won’t end up swimming amongst the coral and fish.