By Alexandria Garlan
I will be the first to admit that I’m a sucker for any simple way to be more sustainable. On a recent holiday, as I stood in a Puerto Rican Walgreens, staring at a wall of sunscreen, it was easy to reach for the one that said ‘reef-safe’ even though I had no idea what that meant. I had to know, is reef-safe just a marketing gimmick to trick me into paying more for regular sunscreen, or is it actually protecting our reefs?
Coral reefs serve a vital role in both our ecosystem and our global economy. Environmentally, coral reefs house around 25% of all marine species while buffering waves and storms before they reach our shores.
Economically, 500 million people rely on coral reefs for food, income and coastal protection. Though the warming of the ocean has the most devastating impact on coral reefs, with temperature shifts from climate change causing widespread coral bleaching, sunscreen has recently come to the fore as another significant risk to our beautiful coral reefs.
Many coastal hotspots are all too familiar with the oily sheen left on the ocean after a large group of tourists have finished swimming, packed up their towels and umbrellas and gone home.
Now I know that this sounds like a significant impact from a very thin layer of lotion. But, according to a 2015 survey, up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the world’s reefs each year, many of them containing the most concerning ingredient, oxybenzone.
Craig Downs, PhD, a forensic ecologist in Virginia and an expert on the subject, noted that chemicals leaching into the reefs can increase their susceptibility to experiencing climate change events, and coral bleaching. According to Downs, some sunscreen chemicals can cause DNA damage to coral embryos and are incredibly toxic to juvenile coral. Essentially, your sunscreen could be disrupting coral reproduction and growth.
Though sunscreen companies have been quick to call out ‘insufficient evidence’, the Hawaiian Government has banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate from January 2021, to protect their reefs.
When travelling, six different locations have sunscreen bans in place that you will need to be mindful; the US Virgin Islands, Hawaii, Key West, Florida, Bonaire and Palau.
Though oxybenzone can be found in several Australian pharmacy and supermarket brands, avoiding oxybenzone is very easy to do. At the time of writing this article, I had seven different sunscreens in my house (I know, I have a problem), none of which contained oxybenzone.
Some of my favourite sunscreen brands are Ultra Violette, Purito, Invisible Zinc and Coola. These are all fantastic brands that have a range of products at varying price points, and you can buy them guilt-free.
So while we wait for more information and research on this topic, we plan to make a conscious choice to buy sunscreen with less nasty chemicals or simply do the Aussie thing and slip on a long-sleeved top and slap on a hat.