The Breakdown: Reef-Safe Sunscreen
For mankind’s number one source of knowledge, the Internet is terribly cluttered. Misinformation is strewn throughout science-based truths like tinsel in a Christmas tree. When one fact is found, a new question opens an entirely different door, and one’s search must continue. Anything for knowledge but, is there time for all of this work?
Sustainability is a topic that is scattered across the web. Information is everywhere. Reputable sources refute each other. Searching for answers is time-consuming and sometimes misleading. But, it’s a topic that we love, and think that you could to!
Introducing “The Breakdown”: the newest addition to your sustainability study guide. Dive into hot-button issues surrounding sustainable living. Get up to speed, important facts, and our takes.
First up: What’s a reef-safe sunscreen?
Up to speed:
Sunscreens run off into oceans and are impacting our coral reefs. Close to 90% of the Caribbean reefs have died since 1980. Ocean visitors should use sunscreen that is reef-safe. Unfortunately, figuring out which sunscreens are reef-safe and which aren’t is not a black and white issue.
Mineral sunscreens sit atop skin. They utilize particles from minerals like titanium dioxide and zinc oxide to reflect the sun and block UV rays. Formulas may include nanoparticles.*
Chemical sunscreens absorb into the skin. They soak up the rays, turn them into heat, and release them from the body. They are more likely to contain oxybenzone, octinoxate, and avobenzone.*
Nanoparticles are less than 100 nanometers thick, and part of any given substance. Mineral sunscreens use nanoparticles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to protect skin from UV rays. Nanoparticles of the two are used because larger particles remain chalk white on skin. (Think 80’s lifeguard crush.) Nanoparticles are small enough to be ingested by coral, which may interfere with their abilities to reproduce.*
Micronized is another term for “nano”.*
Craig Downs, Ph.D, is a forensic ecotoxicologist. In 2005, Downs investigated what was killing off the coral reefs located around the U.S. Virgin Islands. His conclusion – sunscreen. Since then, Downs, the executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory*, has dove further into the subject. Research at HEL focuses on the ingredients that present serious danger to ocean life.* One of these ingredients: oxybenzone. The bright blimp HEL’s radar, oxybenzone can create a monster much scarier than its name. In an interview with Vogue* last year Downs referred to “reef zombies” as “corals and other reef organisms that look ‘healthy but are sterile and dead – so they cannot reproduce.” Reef zombies aren’t Downs’ only nightmare. Coral bleaching can be intensified when marine life absorbs UV blocking chemicals, like oxybenzone and others on HEL’s list.
Oxybenzone is a chemical photostabilizer that is used in sunscreen to absorb UV light.* According to the National Ocean Service*, oxybenzone and a handful of ingredients found in some chemical sunscreens can adversely affect marine life. Defects that may be caused by the compounds include coral bleaching, impaired growth in algae and mussels, and the decrease of fertility in fish.*
Coral bleaching is when coral loses its symbiotic relationship with algae, thus losing its primary food source. After losing its food, the coral turns white and becomes more susceptible to disease. Bleaching is most commonly caused when water temperatures rise.*
Bans on sunscreens containing reef-damaging chemicals are being implemented across the globe*. As of 2021, Hawaii will no longer permit the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate. Key West, FL, and the Caribbean island of Bonaire will enact similar bans that year. In the Pacific, Palau will instate a ban in 2020 that prohibits the sales of non-biodegradable sunscreens with a $1000 penalty for any who don’t abide.
Our take: Avoid chemicals on HEL’s list. Search for mineral sunscreens sans nanoparticles. Be hyper-cognizant of what you’re wearing while at a beach.
Words: James Francis Kelley
Photo: Solid & Striped