Is Your Sunscreen Killing the Coral?

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Getting outside comes with a host of health benefits, but there is one drawback — the sun’s rays carry invisible ultraviolet radiation, which leads to skin aging, sunburns and even cancer. Sunscreen works wonders to protect the skin, but when it comes to choosing the right one, there’s a lot to consider, from whether the ingredients are safe for human health to whether it does the job advertised.

And in recent years, another sunscreen consideration has popped up: the impact on coral reefs.

Keeping the Coral Safe

Coral reefs around the world are struggling due to factors such as warming waters and plastic pollution. Researchers have now discovered that poisoning from chemical sunscreens is playing a role, too. Some of the common ingredients in sunscreen can lower a reef’s tolerance to bleaching and affect the development of marine life around the reef, including the actual coral itself.

This is particularly an issue in tourist-trafficked areas, where the amount of sunscreen getting left behind in the water is staggering — 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas annually. Instead of dissipating into the vast ocean, the sunscreen tends to concentrate where it’s left, around the world’s most impressive, popular reefs.

One of those places is Napili Bay in West Maui. To do their part to protect this gorgeous spot, Napili Kai Beach Resort has rolled out a program to educate visitors on reef health. Guests receive a free sample packet of Raw Elements reef-safe sunscreen, along with a discount coupon to purchase more. Additionally, the resort’s recreation team regularly walks the crescent-shaped beach to inform the snorkelers, sun worshipers and sand castle enthusiasts just how important their sunscreen ingredients really are.

Reef fronting Napili Beach. Photo: Napili Kai Beach Resort

What to Look For

So what makes a good sunscreen from a reef’s perspective? You want to look for a mineral-based product that has a fragrance-free natural base, such as something made with zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Here are the ingredients Napili Kai recommends avoiding:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone or avobenzine
  • Octisalate
  • Octocrylene
  • Octinoxate
  • Homosalate

Covering your skin to the greatest extent possible so that you don’t have to wear as much sunscreen is an effective strategy. For those areas that do require sunscreen, both for the efficacy of the product on your skin and the health of the water, you want to apply at least 15 to 30 minutes before taking a swim — that way, the sunscreen will have a chance to soak in instead of washing away in the waves.

Need some reef-safe sunscreen inspiration? Here are a few options:

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Haley Shapley

Haley Shapley is based in Seattle, where recycling is just as cool as Macklemore, walking in the rain without an umbrella, and eating locally sourced food. She writes for a wide range of publications, covering everything from sustainability to fitness to travel. Read more of her work here.

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