Is Your Sunscreen Killing Coral Reefs?

Most of us would feel a sense of wellbeing when we slap on the sunscreen, protecting ourselves from the harmful UV rays of the sun and avoiding potentially life-threatening cancers later in our lives. But did you know that what protects us humans can cause seriously destructive damage to sensitive coral reefs?

What Is Coral?

Coral is actually millions of living polyps. By secreting limestone these minute organisms not only build up a supporting ‘skeleton’ for their soft bodies, but also build together what we know as coral reefs that appear as a single organism.

Polyps are naturally clear and colourless yet appear in multiple hues thanks to a symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae.

Coral bleaching occurs when these zooxanthellae die or leave their coral host due to environmental changes, causing the coral lose all colour – and the nutrients that keep them alive.

What Causes Coral Stress?

The basic answer to this question is us, we humans are causing the greatest stress.

Pollution – for which we are mostly responsible – is of course high on the list along with acidification of the water and coral disease.

Changes in water temperature, either warmer or cooler, also cause ‘bleaching events’, which in combination with cyclones do the greatest damage.

Ancient in terms of millennia, coral reefs have managed to survive bleaching events throughout their long existence. Nowadays, however, our input has tipped the scales against the chances of such natural recoveries.

A Ban on Some Sunscreens

In July this year the US state of Hawaii enacted legislation that will see the complete ban by 2021 of any sunscreen products which cause harm to coral reefs.

Hawaii’s legislators view the bill as showing the way to lead the world in protecting precious coral reefs from the daily onslaught of chemical pollutants brought about by the seemingly innocuous use of sunscreen by swimmers and surfers.

This first-in-the-world law states, ‘Oxybenzone and octinoxate cause mortality in developing coral; increase coral bleaching that indicates extreme stress, even at temperatures below 87.8 degrees Fahrenheit (31 deg C).’

Chemical UV Barriers

Hawaii’s basis for the new law is a 2016 study by Craig Downs and his team at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory which examined the effects of oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3 or BP-3) on the larval form of coral and in vitro coral cells.

Oxybenzone is described as a ‘photo-toxicant’, photo in this case referring to light. Its job in sunscreen is to turn light into non-harmful heat. However, what protects us damages coral at the DNA level creating deformities.

Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate or OMC) is an ultraviolet light filter which disperses UVB rays. It is made by mixing sulfuric acid with methanol until it is insoluble in water. It is cheap to make and therefore cuts the cost of sunscreen products. Women’s Health Magazine puts it among the ‘6 scary sunscreen ingredients’.

Alternatives to Chemical Barriers

While some skincare companies argue that the ban could increase the risk skin damage, others already produce sunscreens that do not contain harmful chemicals.

Using sunscreens with biodegradable ingredients that will not harm the delicate coral. But beware, although some proclaim they do no damage, always check for the Protect Land + Sea Seal which certifies the product really is reef safe.

Ocean-safe and reef-safe methods of sun-protections are now regular topics in top health, beauty and fashion magazines. Besides using biodegradable sunscreens, the advice includes covering up using long-sleeve tops made from high-UV-protective fabric. Even rubbing in a cream rather than using a spray can make a difference.

A little-known piece of information: ‘coral reefs only take up about 1% of the ocean floor, but host about 25% of all ocean species’. Surely, we can do our little bit to protect them all for future generations.




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