Is Chemical Sunscreen Killing Marine Life?

Is Chemical Sunscreen Killing Marine Life?

Sunscreen season is here. We opt for the safest sun protection for ourselves and our little ones because chemical sunscreen is not the healthiest choice. And guess what, it’s not a day at the beach for marine life either.

My family and I took a vacation to Mexico a few years ago and did some snorkeling. Before we even set foot on the boat that would take us out to the reef where we’d get to see gorgeous fish and even a barracuda, the guides checked all of our sunscreen bottles and tubes.

No, they weren’t concerned with the number of SPF we’d chosen, but made sure everyone was using reef-friendly sunscreen. They even had a stand selling the stuff in case you’d toted along your chemical sun protection.

Chemical Sunscreen and Marine Life

Harmful chemical sunscreens, like oxybenzone and octinoxate, have a toxic effect on young coral, causing endocrine disruption, DNA damage, and death. Essentially, killing off coral.

Coral reefs support more species than any other marine environment. It is estimated that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen washes off of swimmers, snorkelers, and scuba divers every year. Tons! That is huge exposure to these delicate and important ecosystems.

Even worse news, it only takes a small amount (the equivalent of a drop of water in six Olympic-sized pools!) to cause damage. Concentrations of oxybenzone in seawater near coral reef populated Hawaii and U.S. Virgin Islands have been estimated at 12 times what is needed to harm coral.

And it is not just the chemical sunscreen ingredients that are detrimental to the health of reefs. Synthetic preservatives, like parabens, have been linked to problems like coral bleaching.

Safe Sunscreen Ingredients

Zinc oxide is a mineral sunscreen that, unlike oxybenzone and other chemical sunscreens, dissolves in saltwater and eventually settles on the seafloor and becomes buried in sediment. This makes zinc a reef-friendly option.

Of course, it doesn’t stop with minerals. Choosing sun protection that is also free from other harmful ingredients, like synthetic preservatives and fragrance, and chemical emollients, is not only better for marine life but human bodies too.

Because sunscreen is important in protecting against premature aging and disease, we can’t simply go without during a day at the beach. The best way to protect coral reef life and ourselves at the same time is by using nontoxic mineral sunscreens. Water resistant options help sunscreen to stay on our bodies longer too.

Reef Safe Sunscreens for Days at the Beach

Here is a list of sunscreens that are made with zinc oxide and contain no parabens or other harmful ingredients. Reef safe claims are not regulated in the U.S. As with all cosmetic products, it is important to read beyond the front label, and check ingredient listings and brand information. All of the following sunscreens have been proven to be reef safe.

All Good Sunscreen Butter SPF 50+

All Good: Makes A selection of sun protection for the whole family, from Sunsticks to Lip Balm. Broad spectrum and Sunscreen Butter is water resistant.

Badger Sport Sunscreen

Badger Balm: This brand has been creating reef-friendly sunscreens since before we knew about the issue. A wide range of sun protection for the whole family in a variety of formulas. Active and Sport sunscreens are water-resistant and broad spectrum.

True Natural SPORT Stick SPF30 Sunscreen

True Natural: Another extensive line of healthy sunscreens. This brand offers protection in a variety of SPFs and even a sunscreen stick for your beach loving pooch. All are broad spectrum and Sport Stick is water resistant.

Related on EcoSalon:

Safe Sunscreen for Every Skin Type and Tone

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Benefits of Sea Salt: Bring the Beach to Skin and Hair

Image of woman snorkeling via Shutterstock

Liz Thompson

Liz Thompson is an organic beauty expert who has been researching and writing on the subjects of natural beauty, health, and wellness for over 10 years. She specializes in sharing safe beauty products and her knowledge on healthy ingredients with her readers, and helping organic beauty brands and shop owners share their message and products with the world through her writing services.