How Sunscreen Damages Coral Reefs & What We Can Do About It

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Coral reef

It keeps your skin from getting burnt, but your use of sunscreen could be damaging coral reefs. If you’re anything like we were, this news can come as a huge shock. A product designed specifically for use around the water harms the ecosystems which live within it.

Coral reefs are the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. They cover less than 1% of the ocean floor but are home to approximately 25% of all marine species.

Due to global warming, plastic pollution and chemical pollution half of the world’s coral reefs are already dead. If things continue at their current rate then all of them could be gone by 2050.

While New Zealand does not have coral reefs, we do have coral communities, for example around the Kermadec Islands and in the Bay of Islands so we have a responsibility to take action.

It got us to finding out what alternatives we have other than using sunscreen, and today we’ll share those with you, plus the reason why sunscreen is so harmful to our coral reefs.

How Sunscreen Damages Coral Reefs

A 2015 study shockingly found that Benzophenone-3, one of the many chemical ingredients commonly found in sunscreen, disrupts the reproduction and growth cycles of coral. This results in the bleaching of young coral, which is when the coral expels the algae living within its tissues and turns white. Bleached coral is still alive though, but under considerable stress and have a higher rate and risk of dying than non-bleached coral.

Benzophenone-3 (also known as Oxybenzone), along with another chemical Octinoxate, absorb the UV light from the sun before it reaches our skin. While this is good news for us, it isn’t for the coral. As well as causing coral bleaching, this chemical damages the DNA of coral. Coral is often left looking healthy, but is actually sterile and unable to reproduce.

Sunscreen can reach coral reefs simply by us applying it to our skin and then entering the water. The use of aerosol sunscreens on the beach leaves traces of sunscreen upon the sand, which is also washed into the water. Then there’s the sunscreen we wash off our bodies in the shower which also can end up in our oceans through drains too.

We need to find a way of keeping our bodies safe, with the need to protect and conserve our coral reefs. Let’s look at how we can do that next.

Ways to Reduce Sunscreen Damage on Coral Reefs

In July 2018, Hawaii took the active step of banning the sale of sunscreen which contained both Oxybenzone and Octinoxate to protect their coral reefs. While this is a great start, we’d love to see other countries including New Zealand do this too!

Sunscreen manufacturers have been working to replace these chemicals with more coral reef friendly ones, and choosing a natural eco-friendly sunscreen is a great way you can play your part. Look for a mineral-based sunscreen where the main ingredient is zinc oxide, those which are labelled as reef friendly and are not in an aerosol format. Some of our favourites are Ama Balm zinc, My Sunshine Natural Sunscreen and Simple As That Natural Sunscreen.

Other ways you can prevent sunscreen damage to coral reefs is to use alternative methods of protecting your skin. Wearing full-body swimsuits or wetsuits will stop skin exposure to sunlight, cover up when out of the water with long-sleeved clothing, utilise the shade and avoid going out in the hot sun where possible.

One of the great things about our Turkish Cotton beach towels is they are perfect as a cover-up on the beach, the pool or the park. They're incredibly absorbent due to the long fibres of Turkish cotton they are made with, they are super lightweight and they don’t pick up or collect sand on them. Make today the day you help us preserve New Zealand beaches, oceans and marine life, as we donate five per cent of all profits to this important environmental cause.

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