Scroll Top

Nine Things You Need to Know about Sunscreen and Coral Reefs

There’s a lot of news lately about sunscreen and coral reefs. But which chemicals are problematic, and how do you know which products are safe for reefs?

There’s been lots of talk in the press recently about the negative effect chemical sunscreens might have on coral reefs. This has left many people with lots of questions: which chemicals are problematic, what impact do they have and, if I can’t wear sunscreen, how can I keep from getting burned? Here, we’ve digested the latest news and science around potentially harmful sunscreens, so you don’t have to (unless you really want to). Here are a few things that might surprise you when it comes to sunscreen and coral reefs.

Some sunscreens may harm coral reefs

A vacation by the ocean usually involves slathering on sunscreen to protect your skin from the sun when swimming, diving or snorkeling. However, sunscreen can wash off and enter the water column, and recent studies have shown some of its chemical compounds may harm coral reefs — even in very small doses.

According to the International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI), “a small number of studies have shown sunscreen and certain individual components of sunscreen can have negative effects on corals and other marine organisms under certain circumstances.”

Avoid certain chemicals

According to current research, the worst chemical offenders that may harm coral reefs include oxybenzone, which scientists have linked to the bleaching of coral fragments and cells, damage and deformation of coral larvae, and damage to coral DNA and its reproductive success, as well as octinoxate. Check the label when buying sunscreen and avoid products that include these ingredients. Also try to avoid sun blocks with “nano” particles, as these are small enough for corals to ingest. Look for “non-nano” ingredients instead. Lastly, look for mineral-based sunscreen rather than chemical sunscreens, as these ingredients have not currently been linked to coral bleaching.

Some destinations have already banned chemical sunscreens

While the scientific research around sunscreen is still in its early days, several destinations are taking a proactive approach and banning sunscreens that contain harmful chemicals.

These include Hawaii and Florida’s Key West, which will ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate from 2021. The U.S. Virgin Islands is also implementing a ban, which will take effect on March 30, 2020. It covers the distribution, sale and possession of sunscreens containing oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate.

Palau will ban oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate along with several other environmental pollutants, effective in January 1, 2020. Finally, Aruba will ban oxybenzone in 2020 and Bonaire will ban on all sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate by January 1, 2021.

Taking a precautionary approach is sensible

Research into reef-safe sunscreen is still in its early stages as scientists work to better understand the threats posed by chemical sunscreens and in which situations.

However, since we know there may be a potential issue, it’s best to be precautionary. ICRI explains: “Considering the many stresses already faced by reefs and current concerns about the toxicity of certain components of sunscreens to corals, a proactive and precautionary approach to dealing with this issue may be required.

Reducing the amount of harmful sunscreen components that reach the reef environment is a high priority and will require the involvement of governments, reef managers, divers, snorkelers and swimmers, and the tourism and pharmaceutical industries.”

ICRI recommends the following measures:

  • Encouraging the manufacture of reef-friendly sunscreens
  • Promoting the use of reef-friendly sunscreens and other methods of UV protection
  • Regulating the sale and use of sunscreens containing toxins
  • Exerting consumer pressure to encourage development and use of eco-friendly sunscreens
  • Introducing financial disincentives for manufacture and use of potentially damaging sunscreens

Always check the label

Many companies are now including a “reef-safe” label on their products to help you identify which ones don’t contain harmful chemicals. However, as new research is coming out all the time, be sure to always check the listed ingredients.

One of Reef-World’s partners, Caudalie, not only has a new range of sunscreen products free of known harmful ingredients, but also provided funding to enable the charity to begin implementing its Green Fins initiative in Antigua and Barbuda.

Sunscreen isn’t the only answer

The risk from chemical sunscreens is that they wash off into the water column and negatively impact coral reefs. When talking about the potential risks of chemical sunscreens, many people are (quite rightly) concerned about the risk of getting sunburn.

But remember — there are other, simple ways to protect yourself from the sun. As well as using reef-safe sunscreens, find a spot in the shade or cover up with clothing to protect yourself from strong sunshine while you’re topside.

The Green Fins Code of Conduct now includes reef-safe sunscreen policies

As you might already know, the Green Fins Code of Conduct now includes reef-safe sunscreen policies. This is included in the assessment criteria to ensure your business, as part of the Green Fins network, is following ICRI’s guidelines regarding the impact of sunscreens on coral reefs. 

Dive and snorkel operators can help spread the word

Reef-safe sunscreen is a relatively new issue, so Green Fins members, and other dive and snorkel operators, can play their part in educating guests and encouraging positive sunscreen behaviors. An effective sunscreen policy should include:

  • Encouraging customers to cover up in the sun
  • Ensuring your staff know to ask guests to avoid using traditional sunscreens when they will come into contact with the sea
  • Making sure non-reef safe sunscreen is only used when there is no risk of it entering the marine environment
  • Ensuring your guests are aware of your sunscreen policy (e.g. briefings, posters, pre-trip information)

Help is at hand

To help your dive business implement its new sunscreen policy, download new materials here and here from the Green Fins Toolbox:

Remember, these are free to download, display and share, so feel free to use them in your own dive or snorkel operations.

The Reef-World Foundation leads the global implementation of the UN Environment’s Green Fins initiative, which focuses on driving environmentally friendly scuba diving and snorkeling practices globally.

If you’re interested in supporting The Reef-World Foundation in its work to protect coral reefs around the world through the Green Fins initiative, consider donating now. To keep up with their latest news and developments, please follow Reef-World on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter.

Guest post by Melissa Hobson, The Reef-World Foundation