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Your Guide to Reef Friendly Sunscreens

Oceans
Darryl Leniuk / Getty Images

By Katie Day

An emerging concern among ocean scientists, stewards and beachgoers is the impact that certain chemical sunscreens are having on the marine environment. This has led to bans on the sale and use of chemical sunscreens in states and island communities such as Hawaii, Key West and Aruba, and a proposed federal ban in all U.S. National Marine Sanctuaries containing coral reefs. There has also been a surge in the production of "reef friendly" sunscreens — but what does that actually mean, and how safe are these alternative sunscreens to the marine environment?


As an alternative to sunscreen made with toxic chemicals, mineral-based sunscreen is often used as a "reef friendly" option. While mineral-based sunscreens are better for the marine environment than sunscreens with toxic chemicals, such as oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene, there are still risks associated with their use. The most common active ingredients in mineral sunscreens are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

How Do I Know If a Sunscreen Is "Reef Friendly"?

Unfortunately the term "reef friendly" is not regulated, so you can't always trust products with this description. It's important to actually check the "active ingredients" label on the back of your sunscreen or personal care product to ensure that reef-harming chemicals are not included. The size of minerals can also have an impact. Be sure to use micro-sized (or non-nano) mineral sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles, as these smaller particles can be toxic in high concentrations.

It's also advised to stick with lotions and avoid spray or misting sunscreens, especially those that contain titanium dioxide as it can be harmful to your health if inhaled. Finally, it's always good to use products that cut back on single use plastic packaging, either by using containers that are reusable, have high recycled content or are made out of biodegradable plant-based materials like cardboard.

Check the Label

Make sure your sunscreen does not contain the following harmful substances on the HEL list:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Any nanoparticles or "nano-sized" zinc or titanium (if it doesn't explicitly say "micro-sized" or "non-nano" and it can rub in, it's probably nano-sized)
  • Any form of microplastic, such as "exfoliating beads"

How Else Can I Protect Myself From the Sun, and Our Coasts From Harmful, Chemical Sunscreen?

Use Sun Management

Even mineral-based sunscreens can negatively impact fish and coral reefs at high concentrations. The best thing we can do is limit products when recreating in high use areas. Effective sun protection methods include a balance of:

  • Avoiding sun exposure during peak sun hours (10 am – 2 pm)
  • Covering up- Wear hats and clothing (can be UPF or even just regular)
  • Using a more reef friendly sunscreen on exposed areas

Spread the Word and Advocate for Bans on Reef Harming Sunscreens

In addition to changing our actions and purchasing decisions to protect the marine environment, it's also important to spread awareness about the issue to friends, family and community members. At the local level, ensure that your town's stores are offering "reef friendly" sunscreen products, and encourage them to stop the sale of harmful products (feel free to share this handout with your community).

You can also advocate for local legislation that bans the sale and use of toxic sunscreens. For instance, in 2018, Hawaii passed the first ever statewide ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreens, soon after, island nations including Palau, Bonaire and Aruba followed suite. Due to widespread community support, the Florida Keys were also able to pass an oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreen ban in Key West, but chemical companies have been working tirelessly to try and revoke this important legislation through the use of statewide preemption — learn more here.

At the federal level, you can ask your federal representatives to support the first federal bill to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate sunscreens in National Marine Sanctuaries with coral reefs! National Marine Sanctuaries are home to some of the ocean's most biologically diverse and culturally significant marine areas, and we need to ensure that these critical areas are protected from harmful chemicals, in addition to other damaging practices like oil and gas extraction.

Please call your House representatives in Washington DC and ask them to support HR 1834 — Defending Our National Marine Sanctuaries from Damaging Chemicals Act of 2019, and ask your Senate representative to support or sponsor a similar bill.

Learn more about "reef friendly" sunscreens, the negative impacts of chemical-based sunscreens and get a list of some great sunscreen options here.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

Jessica Kourkounis / Stringer

The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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