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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

Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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