For people paled by the long, sunless winter, a trip to the beach isn’t complete without hourly slatherings of high-SPF sunscreen. While sunscreen provides protection from the harmful effects of UV rays, the sunscreen industry is under-regulated and contains products with chemicals that are harmful to both humans and coral reefs.

According to a 2016 study, up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen – or 60 million bottles-worth – wash off humans and into reef environments each year. Much of that sunscreen contains oxybenzone and octinoxate, two chemicals known to cause harm to coral reefs, recently banned in Hawaii with Key West and other locations following. The effects of these chemicals are thought to rival climate change as the top threat to coral systems. With nearly one billion people heading to the seashores each year, using reef-safe sunscreens and sunscreen alternatives is crucial to maintaining a healthy coral system.

People are more likely to snorkel and dive into warm waters, but for the intrepid, seasonal divers, bathers, and beach walkers, there are coral reefs in the Puget Sound and many other cooler coastal waters. You should be careful about your sunscreen for yourself (see below), and wherever there are shores and sunshine.

Chemicals to Avoid

Oxybenzone is the top chemical to avoid in sunscreens and other cosmetic products and it’s been identified as harmful to both coral reefs and humans. In humans, this chemical easily penetrates the body and can be found in urine within a half hour after application. Once inside the body, oxybenzone is a powerful endocrine disrupter that may be carcinogenic. It’s also devastating to coral, and invertebrates in general. According to Haereticus Environmental Lab, oxybenzone has been shown to cause “bleaching, DNA damage, planula deformity, mortality, and skeletal endocrine disruption.”

In addition to oxybenzone, the Haereticus Environmental Lab identifies octinoxate, octocrylene, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, all parabens (found in many skin products), triclosane, Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), all microplastic beads or spheres, and certain nanoparticles as harmful to marine environments. The lab also marks products that do not contain any of these ingredients with a “Protect Land + Sea” certification seal.

Safe(r) Sunscreens

While oxybenzone and octinoxate have been identified as harmful by the Food and Drug Administration, other harmful chemicals are still under-regulated due to gaps in research and can show up in “reef friendly” sunscreens. In fact, the FDA admits its sunscreen regulations need a serious refreshing, and allow products to advertise SPF contents disproportionate to its actual effectiveness. This can make choosing a reef-safe sunscreen difficult.

According to the Oceanic Society, physical sunscreens (also known as mineral sunscreens) that are made with “non-nano” zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are considered the safest for reefs. Lotions containing oxybenzone (listed here) and spray sunscreens are considered the worst offenders.

Badger has several mineral sunscreens that tend to show up on most reef-friendly sunscreen lists. Locally in Seattle, more non-nano zinc oxide and natural products can be found at PCC. I found the following reef-safe products (amongst a sea of unsafe ones) during a quick trip to Rite-Aid and Trader Joes:

  • Australian Gold Botanical Sunscreen Mineral Lotion
  • Aveeno Positively Mineral Sensitive Skin Sunscreen
  • Several Badger Mineral Sunscreens
  • Trader Joe’s Zinc Oxide Sunscreen Lotion

Unfortunately, some of these brands also offer a cheaper, reef-harmful option. Trader Joe’s Face & Body Sunscreen Lotion contains both oxybenzone and octocrylene, as does Aveeno’s Active Naturals Protect + Hydrate (SPF 70).

Sunscreen Alternatives

Put the hat on and cover up more… Photo by Anthony Tran on Unsplash

While parents have been imploring their children to put on sunscreen for generations (I can still hear my mom yelling “don’t forget sunscreen!” to this day), it might be time to consider alternatives. Environmental Working Group even suggests using sunscreen as a last resort against the sun. Alternative protection methods include:

  • Wear clothes to shield UV rays and reduce the area of skin that needs sunscreen.
  • Plan activities in the morning and evening, avoiding the harsh afternoon sun.
  • Create your own shade with umbrellas and canopies.
  • Wear sunglasses and a hat to reduce the impact of UV rays on your eyes.

While there are specialized Ultraviolet Protection Factor clothing items, a regular t-shirt does the trick to of shielding UV rays and reducing the need for sunscreen.

Coral reefs are the building blocks for life in shallow marine environments. By altering our UV protection practices, we can help these ecosystems recover.

Author: Sam Wigness is an outdoors enthusiast, sports fan and writer. He can be found working in his vegetable garden, playing softball and wandering the Issaquah Alps with his wife Amy and dog Pippen. A Minnesota transplant, he enjoys the (relatively) temperate climate and extreme geography of the Pacific Northwest.

Lead photo (c) SK Emeraldology 2019