Sunscreen safely this summer

Once the sun is out and the heat reaches us, most of us look for the closest beach to dive in and explore the ocean or to sit back and sunbath. And one thing that we always carry around with us, or at least we should,is sunscreen. Although it protects us, it can also have a damaging effect on aquatic organisms. But don’t sweat, as with everything there is more than one option and below we offer you a guide on how to make sure that your sunscreen protects you and does no harm to organisms living in the ocean.

Every time you step into the ocean all the chemicals that you have put on your skin with your skin care products seep into the water where they are absorbed by corals. Each year around 14 000 tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers, divers and snorkelers and end up into our oceans. In addition, more sunscreen pollution reaches coastal areas via waste water discharge. There is more and more research coming out that certain chemicals used in most of the sunscreens bleach coral at extremely low concentrations, “as low as one drop in 6.5 Olympic sized swimming pools”. Coral reefs are among the most biologically productive and diverse ecosystems in the world, they represent hot spots of marine biodiversity, they are the rainforests of the ocean; and directly sustainhalf a billion people. It is worth to keep in mind, that it is not just sunscreens that can damage coral, but also other personal care products, climate change and other pollutants can increase coral bleaching, as the research states:

“Coral bleaching (i.e., the release of coral symbiotic zooxanthellae) has negative impacts on biodiversity and functioning of reef ecosystems and their production of goods and services. This increasing world-wide phenomenon is associated with temperature anomalies, high irradiance, pollution, and bacterial diseases. Recently, it has been demonstrated that personal care products, including sunscreens, have an impact on aquatic organisms similar to that of other contaminants.”

The reason why some of the ingredients used in sunscreen are so dangerous, according to above mentioned research is:

“Sunscreens cause the rapid and complete bleaching of hard corals, even at extremely low  concentrations. The effect of sunscreens is due to organic ultraviolet filters, which are able to induce the lytic viral cycle in symbiotic zooxanthellae with latent infections.”

According to Craig Downs, Ph.D., a forensic ecotoxicologist in Virginia, “about 90 percent of the reefs in the Caribbean have disappeared since 1980”. We as humans might be responsible for this contamination of corals, but let’s not forget that we are also capable of helping to heal this fragile underwater ecosystem. As National Geographic writes:

“On May 1, lawmakers in Hawaii passed a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, another harmful chemical. Hawaii is the first state to pass such a measure, and it could go into effect as a law by January 1, 2021.”

That doesn’t mean that you should stop using sunscreen, in fact there are several benefits from using sunscreen, just use sunscreens that are both good for you and the oceans. With that in mind before you buy, read the list of ingredients. According to The Haereticus Environmental Laboratory researches steer clear if you see any of these in the sunscreen:

Any form of microplastic sphere or beads.

Any nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (choose natural sunscreens with non-nanoparticles)

            Oxybenzone

            Octinoxate

            4-methylbenzylidene camphor

            Octocrylene

            Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)

            Methyl Paraben

            Ethyl Paraben

            Propyl Paraben

            Butyl Paraben

             Benzyl Paraben

            Triclosan

Besides sunscreen there is also an option of sun-protective clothing, that you can wear instead of using sunscreen. Use sunscreen mindfully, remember that your body needs sun to produce Vitamin D, so be smart, sustainable, take care of yourself and our oceans. These are some of the sunscreens that My Good Planet recommends, that are safe for corals and other aquatic organisms, some brands offer also special sunscreens for kids (the list is organised alphabetically): Alba Botanica, Badger Balm, Eco Cosmetics, Raw Elements, Raw Love Sunscreen, Stream2Sea, Weleda. Hope this helps you to start your journey towards the protection of corals and the oceans, let us know below if there are any other sunscreen brands that you would recommend.

For more information on what you can do and how to get involved in the protection of corals and other aquatic organisms head over to The Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, and check out Environmental Working Group’s extensive safe sunscreen guide.

See below a short documentary ‘Reefs At Risk’ on harmful effects some sunscreen chemicals have on aquatic organisms.

Baiba Šustere

Baiba Šustere is a staff writer and wellness expert for My Good Planet. Specialising in mindfulness, health and wellbeing, Baiba's work has inspired and touched many of our readers over the course of her time with us. Her time studying to become a Yoga teacher in India gave her a unique perspective on life; one which she generously shares with us regularly.