Is Your Sunscreen Killing Coral Reefs?

woman in bikini applying sun block cream on bodyOn a recent escape from New York City’s wintry mix, I found myself struggling to find a sunscreen that I could feel good about. I try very hard not to use products with chemicals, especially in large quantities, but I am fair-skinned with a family history of skin cancer so SPF 45+ is a health must. When in the sun, I apply it liberally and frequently. I am normally very anti-checked luggage on flights but on this recent trip to Jamaica I went so far as to check my bag just so I could bring natural sunscreen that I thought I would not be able to find on the island.

At some point on the trip, friends and I were chatting with a guide from the area and one friend inquired about snorkeling. We learned that, while Jamaica once had corral teeming with wild life, the coral was now virtually extinct. Our guide informed us that part of the reason the coral may have been destroyed was because of the sunscreen that tourists wear. [1]

Cue the guilt. I had tried desperately to find sunscreen that was ‘natural’ and according to the label on the Nature’s Gate sunscreen I ultimately purchased, it was, “Free of Oxybenzone, Parabens, Phthalates, Fragrance, Animal Derived Ingredients and never tested on animals.” I just assumed that this meant that it was safe for the environment. My friends, I was wrong. The main culprits that can contribute to reef erosion, according to the 2008 Danovaro study, are Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), Butylparaben, Octinoxate, and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor. The first ingredient in my ‘healthy’ sunscreen was Octinoxate.

It seems that in order to live our values and follow through on a commitment to protect our bodies and the environment from harmful chemicals, we must do our own research. When it comes to sunscreen, the keywords to look for are “Reef safe”. It’s also important to consider other chemicals we might carry into the water that may be harmful to reef or other marine wildlife, such as substances found in hair care products, face cream, or makeup. In these cases, it is unclear to me if a simple soapy shower prior to swimming will do the trick. Luckily there is a one-stop shop for MANY beauty products on the market. The Environmental Working Group’s database rates sunscreens, beauty products, perfumes, as well as makeup. They also have an app for those on-the-go decisions. All we can do is try…


[1] This is supported by a 2008 study conducted by Roberto Danovaro, et al. on the effects of certain sunscreen chemicals on coral reefs in the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans, as well as the Red Sea. See the study referenced in Ker Than, “Swimmers’ Sunscreen Killing Off Coral.” National Geographic News. January 29, 2008.

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