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Reef Safe Sunscreen

Coral reefs are one of the most valuable and beautiful ecosystems on Earth. They provide food, coastal protection, and tourism. However, coral ecosystems around the world face serious threats from several sources, such as climate change, land-based pollution, coastal development, disease, and invasive species. But did you know that scientists have recently discovered that chemicals found in sunscreen and other personal health products threaten the health of coral reefs? And several vacation areas, such as Hawaii, the Florida Keys, Cancun, Aruba, and the Virgin Islands, have already banned certain types of sunscreens. This is because studies have shown that each year, 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers’ bodies into oceans, according to the National Park Service. And the chemicals in these sunscreens can harm coral health and reproduction as well as potentially contribute to the decline of coral reefs. Luckily for green-living devotees, reef-friendly options do exist. Reef-safe is a way to categorize sunscreen that is not assumed to be harmful to the ocean, and Reef-safe sunscreen is a natural or mineral-based sunscreen that only has two active ingredients: zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Both ingredients are nontoxic to reefs and are the only active sunscreen ingredients approved by the FDA. You can look at the back of the lotion you intend to purchase, and if it has anything besides zinc and titanium listed in the active ingredients, then it is not reef-safe. Also, be aware that the words reef-safe sunscreen printed on the bottle do not mean it is safe because the word reef safe currently has no legal meaning or definition. Two ingredients often found in chemical sunscreens are oxybenzone and octinoxate. Both absorb UV rays and are part of the benzophenone family. When these ingredients wear off in the water and reach coral reefs, they can damage the coral’s genetic information, disrupting its reproduction and growth cycles and leading to bleaching, according to a study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

Reef Safe Sunscreen

Beyond the potential to harm marine life, the ingredients in chemical sunscreen can be controversial. Some studies have raised concern regarding chemicals being absorbed into the bloodstream in concentrations that may surpass the FDA threshold for safe levels. Some chemical sunscreen ingredients may pose another health risk as well, raising concerns about ingredients triggering allergies and disrupting hormones. Other studies have noted the endocrine-disrupting effects of oxybenzone, while others have shown that octinoxate can affect hormones and reproductive systems in animals.

While you should apply sunscreen daily while out in the sun, you don’t necessarily need something every time that is reef safe. If you’re not planning on being in the ocean or other naturally occurring bodies of water, any sunscreen will do the job. However, if you are traveling, it’s always good to check the local protocol, as more and more governments are beginning to implement regulations on the possession and sale of the chemicals found in certain sunscreens.

For more information, visit National Ocean Service.

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