Summer is upon us, and that means family vacations to the beach and the lake. Lathering yourself and your kids in sunscreen will help protect your skin, but what does it do to the rest of the environment? Pools are already filled with chemicals, but lakes and oceans shouldn’t be. Unfortunately, chemicals in most sunscreens aren’t fully absorbed into your skin and are extremely harmful to aquatic environments.
We spoke with Catherine Rapanotti, a naturalist with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program at the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, Hawaii, about why regular sunscreen can be harmful to the oceans and reefs, what reef-safe sunscreen is, and what you can do to play your part in helping our local reefs.
How Sunscreen Harms Reefs
After you put on sunscreen, some of it soaks into your skin to protect you, but some leaks into the water that you’re splashing around in. With most sunscreens on the market, you’ll find chemicals abound; chemicals that aren’t the greatest for your body, and definitely harmful for fragile corals and reefs.
“These chemicals are not only harmful but actually toxic to coral, algae, fish, and marine mammals,” Rapanotti says. “Even in tiny, tiny, tiny amounts, they can have detrimental effects to the coral.”
These chemicals don’t just harm the corals, but are actually damaging their DNA, so future baby corals are deformed and not able to grow properly. There are simple actions, though, that everyone can take to make a change locally.
What is reef-safe sunscreen?
Reef-safe sunscreen has been cropping up in the past few years as research presents evidence of just how harmful common sunscreen chemicals can be to the ocean. Two of the most harmful are oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Reef-safe sunscreen is made without these harmful chemicals. Instead, reef-safe sunscreens are mineral-based, using zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and do not contain nanoparticles.
“When companies crush up zinc, it’s microscopic so it can be absorbed by your skin, but it can also be digested by coral,” Rapanotti says. “Even some of the natural and mineral sunscreens, if [the bottle] doesn’t say non-nano particles, they’re better, but still can be harmful.”
As a parent, look for sunscreen that has non-nano particles, and contains natural ingredients, like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, as the main sunscreen ingredients.
Igor Bekker, founder of MADE OF, has a reef-safe sunscreen that contains non-nano zinc oxide and only plant-based ingredients, like argan oil and coconut oil. “We are firm believers product we apply to our skin should be healthy for us, but they should also not create detrimental effects on our environment,” Bekker says.
The least-harmful sunscreen, though? Not a sunscreen at all. If possible, opt for anything that can safely cover your skin and put a barrier between you and the sun, like sun hats and rash guards.
Where can you find reef-safe sunscreen?
Soon in Hawaii, 2021 to be exact, you’ll only be able to find reef-safe sunscreen. In May 2018, Hawaii passed a bill to ban all sales of sunscreen that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, the two most harmful chemicals. For now, most local surf shops, hotels and health food stores sell reef-safe sunscreen.
Opt for baby sunscreen, too, as many sunscreens for babies and children don’t contain harmful chemicals. “Parents should be skeptics,” Bekker says. “Look for third-party certification that can substantiate organic, reef-safe or natural claims.”
Although keeping our oceans and reefs safe is a global issue, you can tackle the issue locally, one reef-safe sunscreen at a time. Lather up, enjoy the beach and know you’re doing your part for the environment.
Naturalist Catherine Rapanotti, Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Ambassadors of the Environment program for the Ritz-Carlton, Kapalua, Hawaii
Igor Bekker, founder of MADE OF
NPR: Hawaii Approves Bill Banning Sunscreen Believed To Kill Coral Reefs