What is Reef Safe Sunscreen?

Sunscreen: it’s supposed to protect our bodies from skin damage and skin cancer, but what exactly is it doing to our oceans?

When I was planning for my recent trip to Hawaii, I noticed that the state required sunscreen that is “reef-safe.” Being from California, reefs are not abundant on our beaches and I was not familiar with this term. I found that in 2018, Governor David Ige of Hawaii signed SB2571, Act 104, which bans the sale and distribution of sunscreens containing the popular ingredients of oxybenzone and octinoxate beginning on January 1, 2021. With that, Hawaii became the first state to pass this law with places such as the U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, Key West, Florida, Bonaire, and Palau quickly following in its footsteps. These two ingredients are extremely harmful to coral reefs and other marine life. They have also recently been found to be harmful to our skin as well. The act reads:

Beginning January 1, 2021, bans the sale, offer of sale, or distribution in the State of any sunscreen that contains oxybenzone or octinoxate, or both, without a prescription issued by a licensed healthcare provider to preserve marine ecosystems. (CD1)

Hawaii Sate Legislature (https://www.capitol.hawaii.gov/Archives/measure_indiv_Archives.aspx?billtype=SB&billnumber=2571&year=2018)

At this point, you might be wondering what effects these ingredients have on marine life. Coral reefs are not just for our viewing pleasure on our next scuba or snorkel adventure, they are vital to much of the marine life that inhabit the ocean. While there are many causes to the rapid increase in coral bleaching, these ingredients, oxybenzone and octinoxate, in sunscreen play a part in it as well. According to the National Park Service, “4,000 to 6,000 TONS of sunscreen enters reef areas annually. This does not spread out rapidly or evenly over the entire ocean, but concentrates on popular tourist sites.” These sites include places such as Hanauma Bay on Oahu and Honolua Bay on Maui. Coral has a mutualistic relationship with a photosynthetic algae called zooxanthellae, where the algae uses photosynthesis to provide nutrients for the coral while the coral provides protection for the zooxanthellae. The zooxanthellae are also responsible for the vibrant colors that we associate with coral. However, when these zooxanthellae become stressed, due to carbon emission, increasing water temperatures, and exposure to ingredients such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, the coral can no longer support the zooxanthellae and it expels them, creating coral bleaching.

What is Coral Bleaching? Coral bleaching is the process where the zooxanthellae are expelled from the coral and leave a white coral skeleton. When these coral are bleached, they rarely come back, and if they do, it takes them decades. Zooxanthellae are not the only living creatures that depend on corals, but sea turtles, shrimp, crab, fish, and others rely on it for survival as well. Because coral supports organisms at the bottom of the food chain, each subsequent level is affected as a result.

What Sunscreen Ingredients Should I Look For? You should look for sunscreens that are mineral-based and contain natural ingredients such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. You should also look for sunscreens that are paraben free and non-nano. Non-nanotized ingredients mean that these elements are bigger than 100 nanometers wide, which is safer for coral reefs, as its size makes it difficult to be absorbed and ingested by other marine life.

Next time you’re out buying sunscreen, consider looking for reef-safe sunscreen, as it is not only better for your skin, but also the marine life in our oceans. I ended up using sunscreen from Salt and Stone and Vertra, and I cannot recommend them enough! Another alternative to wearing sunscreen is wearing a rashguard with UPF protection.

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