Reef-Friendly Sunscreen: Why It's Important and How We Can Help

The Great Barrier Reef has recently gained some attention for the widespread bleaching of its warm water coral.

As lovers of the outdoors, we’ve been exploring this topic for a few years, but we always appreciate when the conversation resurfaces. It’s a reminder of why we choose to be oxybenzone-free and reef-friendly—both as a brand, and as individuals.

Staying Sun Safe Isn't As Simple As It Seems

Whether it’s protecting against sunburn, aging, or melanoma, we generally apply sunscreen with the best intentions. Using a broad-spectrum sunscreen is smart, if not imperative, while outside.

But you may not know that chemical sunscreens could be doing a lot of damage, perhaps to our skin, but surely to the environment.

Much of the damage the reefs are experiencing points to a chemical called oxybenzone, which is used in a slew of health and beauty products for it’s ability to absorb UV radiation.

According to the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, “Oxybenzone is an emerging contaminant of concern to the marine environment.” It’s a chemical that’s significantly contributing to widespread coral bleaching around the world.

Coral bleaching may not strike you as alarming, but the impact of the damage is just that.

Here's what happens:

Algae lives in the coral’s tissues, providing food and nutrients essential to its survival. When oxybenzone is released into our oceans, the coral begins to eject the algae that sustains its life, causing the coral to become white, or “bleached.” If the oxybenzone isn’t removed from the environment, the algae won’t be reabsorbed, and the coral won’t thrive.

Not only does it sacrifice the life of the coral, but it sacrifices the lives of 25% of marine species, and entire ecosystems which call coral their home.

It doesn’t take much, either--just one drop of oxybenzone in an Olympic-sized swimming pool to disrupt coral growth. … That’s a concentration of 62 parts per trillion. Or one dollop of sunscreen in the volume of 6 long-course swimming pools.

Every Drop Counts

--The statistics are shocking, but you may assume that one person can’t make a difference.

Let’s think about it in the context of a beach vacation:

You apply one dollop of sunscreen with oxybenzone in the morning. Assuming you’re reapplying correctly, you’re adding another dollop every 90 minutes, plus after swimming or toweling off. If you spend 6 hours at the beach, that’s four times the amount of chemicals with the ability to damage our reefs.

That’s just one person on a beach trip. Multiply that number by each day you’re on vacation. Perhaps an entire summer. Or year round if you live near the beach. Not to mention 7 billion others on the planet using similar products. With over 14,000 tons of sunscreen that ends up in the ocean every year, the amount of oxybenzone present in the ocean is startling.

Swimming is an obvious cause of oxybenzone related coral damage, but the pollution isn't limited to products that directly enters ocean water. Factor in runoff from showers, swimming pools, and sprinklers--all of this oxybenzone-tainted water is eventually dumped back into our oceans, and all of it contributes to the ongoing damage.

Coral? Why Is Coral Important?

Why should we, as humans, care about coral?

From an animal rights perspective, coral supports more species per unit than any other marine environment, and that’s only the organisms we know of. Scientists estimate that there are an additional 1 to 8 million undiscovered organisms that rely on coral to survive.

It also affects the future of 21st century medicine. According to scientists, the biodiversity found in coral’s ecosystems could hold the answer to a variety of human diseases. Coral and coral-reliant organisms are currently being used in medicines for cancer, bacterial infections, and other diseases.

Healthy coral also helps to slow global warming. Although coral takes up less than 1% of the earth’s surface, it’s responsible for absorbing one quarter of the ocean’s carbon dioxide. Without it, that CO2 would be released into our atmosphere, contributing heavily to global warming.

You're Free to be Free (of Oxybenzone)

The good news is that oxybenzone is entirely avoidable when it comes to sun protection. Mineral based sunscreens—like Sunology—protect your skin and don’t harm marine life.

“Reef friendly” sunblocks protect your skin by using titanium dioxide and zinc oxide, which are natural ingredients, and not found to pose a threat to coral. While many international beach ocean beaches ban chemical sunscreen, they permit, oxybenzone-free sun protection.

Choose oxybenzone-free, reef-friendly (not to mention, good karma) sunscreen alternative for all creatures. Questions? Post in the comments section!

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