Sunscreen kills coral: How can we protect our skin?

Sunscreen kills coral: How can we protect our skin?

You probably knew about the importance of using sunscreen to protect our skin against the sun’s harmful UV rays. So it should come as no surprise that sunscreen is one of the best-selling personal care products.
During your vacation, you will need a certain amount of sunscreen when you’re snorkeling, swimming, or participating in other water activities.

 Tropical reefs have begun dying from "bleaching events" (Photo: Sustainable Travel International)
 Tropical reefs have begun dying from "bleaching events" (Photo: Sustainable Travel International)

However, do you know that the sunscreen protecting your skin could cause considerable damage to coral and other marine life below you? Do you know sunscreen products can cause abrupt and complete bleaching of hard corals, even at low concentrations?
Let's discover how you can protect both the marine destinations you visit and your skin. 

How sunscreen can endanger coral reefs and sea animals?

Sunscreen has become part of our daily skin routines, but lots of these products contain numerous ingredients which have serious impacts on marine life.

There are thousands of tons of sunscreen that end up in the oceans each year. Actually, this vast amount is not only from people who swim in the sea but also from the sunscreen that we rinse down the drain when we take showers. It can eventually find its way into the ocean. In addition, the freshwater shower on the beach can spread sunscreen particles across the sand. When the tide comes in and washes out these chemicals to sea.

How sunscreen chemicals enter our environment (Photo: NOAA)
How sunscreen chemicals enter our environment (Photo: NOAA)

There are two main types of sunscreen: physical (mineral, sunblock) and chemical. 
Mineral sunscreens act like a physical barrier on top of your skin, reflecting the sun’s rays away. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, contain synthetic compounds which absorb and scatter the UV light before it penetrates your skin.

Many chemical sunscreens use ingredients that can harm coral reefs such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, butylparaben, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, etc. These chemicals can cause coral bleaching, damage the DNA of corals, and increase abnormal growth and deformities.

Coral bleaching

Coral Bleaching (Photo: Britannica)
Coral Bleaching (Photo: Britannica)

We always dream of traveling to warm, shallow, sun-drenched seas sparkling with brilliantly colored fish and corals. However, tropical reefs have begun dying from "bleaching events". It is partly because of our using sunscreen habit. 

Lives inside the healthy coral polyps are zooxanthellae. These tiny creatures produce oxygen, absorb light and use photosynthesis to create food for corals. It also helps make the eye-catching colors for which corals are known. Coral polyps protect themselves and zooxanthellae with a mucus layer.

Because of the warming of ocean water, bacterial and viral diseases, ultraviolet light or other radiation, and especially sunscreen pollution, this protective layer is damaged. It will trigger a stress response - coral expels the symbiotic algae living in them, causing them to turn completely white. 

Coral bleaching is a major crisis (Photo: LAURA RICHARDSON)
Coral bleaching is a major crisis (Photo: LAURA RICHARDSON)

The "bleaching event" doesn't kill corals, but the coral is more vulnerable to disease and death. Oxybenzone also prevents adult corals from recovering after damage. This damage will negatively impact the other species that depend on the coral communities, including fish, seagrass, sponges, algae, sea turtles, lobsters, clams, seahorses, marine mammals, etc.

Negative impacts on other marine life

Moreover, sunscreens can decrease fertility in fish; accumulate in the tissues of dolphins and be transferred to their young; damage sea urchins' immune systems and deform their young; impair algae's photosynthesis.

What can we do to protect coral reefs and marine life when snorkeling?

We have easy tips to ensure that you can stay sun-safe and still preserve the coral reefs.

Check the label and make sure your sunscreen does not contain Reef-Toxic Chemicals

Check the lable before buying and using (Photo: IMAGE Magazine)
Check the label before buying and using (Photo: IMAGE Magazine)

Stay away from sun care products that have the following harmful substances:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Avobenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Butylparaben
  • Octocrylene
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan
  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized”
  • Any form of microplastic, especially microbeads in health and beauty products.

These chemical ingredients also have the potential for adverse human health impacts during usage.

The size of minerals in sunscreens can also have an impact. Be sure to use micro-sized (or non-nano) mineral sunscreens to avoid nanoparticles which can be toxic in high concentrations.

Staying in the shade when the UV radiation is strongest 

The easiest way to protect yourself is to avoid sun exposure during peak sun hours (between 10 am and 2 pm). But the more sunlight penetrates the water, the clearer we can explore the underwater world. How can we enjoy snorkeling at the best time but still protect our skin and coral? The tip below will show you.

UPF (Ultraviolet Protective Factor) swimwear 

Full Body Rash Guard
Full Body Rash Guard

The best option is wearing a long-sleeve or full-body swimsuit with UV protection to minimize the amount of sunscreen you need. It is safer than any sunscreen. Besides, you don’t have to remember to reapply.

Spread the word and support bans on reef-toxic sunscreens

Advocate for using reef-safe sunscreen and raise awareness among your family, your friends, and people around you about the consequences of using chemical sunscreens. Let them know how they can keep both themselves and the coral reef safe.

John's Tours hopes that tourists can understand the importance of coral and take care of it. Each of us only needs to change a bit in our habits. It will create a remarkable positive change to the Phu Quoc environment in particular and our world environment in general.

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