Coral Is Feeling the Burn


It was like a coral cemetery: the piles of bleached, brittle, cauliflower-shaped carcasses that lined the beach at Punta Mita.

My husband and I were shocked by the amount of coral reef destruction that we witnessed on our recent trip to the Four Seasons Resort outside Puerta Vallarta. Sure, the coral motif is widely popular in contemporary decor and it’s fun to collect the remnants to display in pretty dishes in the bathroom, but at what cost?

I was fascinated to learn that scientists have linked coral reef destruction to the estimated 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen that wash off ocean swimmers every year. According to a recent article published by Forbes, Italian researchers estimate 10 percent of coral reefs worldwide are threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching.

Sunscreens don’t break down in water, and as it accumulates on coral, sunlight is blocked and the coral cease to thrive. Apparently, four common chemicals contained in sunscreen activate viruses that kill an important sumbiotic algae that feeds coral through photosynthesis. Without this algae coral turns white and dies. The four chemicals include: octinoxate, oxybenzone, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor and the preservative butylparaben.

While in Mexico, I also learned that sunscreen poses a threat to other marine life that requires sunlight, including dolphins. My children were told to wear biodegradable sunscreen while swimming with Dewey and other dolphins at an adventure park. We purchased Caribbean Breeze Kids (SPF 30) at the park in Nueva Vallarta, which seemed to protect their beach-braided hairdos with newly-exposed white scalps.

This entire revelation piqued my interest in biodegradable sunscreens on the market, which are being used more widely by marine sanctuaries and nature buffs. (Biodegradable means the ingredients will decompose naturally with the help of bacteria.)

The natural products have no petroleum-based ingredients and use zinc oxide as an active ingredient. For example, UV Natural for Baby (SPF 30), made in Australia, uses zinc, is water resistant, and has a shelf life of three years. For grown-ups, there’s Kiss My Face Non Chemical (SPF 18), and Aubrey Natural Sunscreen (SPF 25).

Soon, an even safer, soybean-based product, Soyscreen, will be introduced, which boasts zero synthetic ingredients which can also harm marine life.

Until then, look for the best ingredients possible when selecting a sunscreen for your family. Save your skin and protect the ocean’s living creatures at the same time.

Image: jamesfarnham

Luanne Bradley

Luanne Sanders Bradley is the West coast Editor at EcoSalon and currently resides in San Francisco, California.