Under the sea, vibrant, diverse ecosystems used to flourish. But today, coral reefs, also known as “rainforests of the sea,” are at risk. Whether on the shore or inland, consumerism—from plastic waste to chemical sunscreens—is harming ocean health. But could there be blue skies ahead for our blue waters? Maybe, but that depends on us.
“People are waking up and recognizing that our lifestyles are having such a significant impact on the ocean that we can’t ignore it anymore,” says Vicki Nichols Goldstein, founder and executive director of the Inland Ocean Coalition and Colorado Ocean Coalition. “No matter where we live, if we can recognize our impact and that there are solutions, we have a chance to turn things around.”
The sunscreen dilemma
Sunscreen is necessary to protect our skin. On hundreds of beaches across the world, eager tourists slather on sunscreen before jumping into turquoise waters; meanwhile, sunscreens applied in landlocked states can end up in rivers and streams, ultimately making their way to the sea. “Nearly everyone travels—and even if you don’t, having sunscreen on your body or urinating it out is impacting your local waterway, which eventually ends up in the oceans,” says Goldstein.
An unfortunate result is that approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen, most of which is chemical sunscreen, enter waters around coral reefs each year, according to nonprofit research organization Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. Noticing declines in reefs since the 1980s (the Caribbean, for example, has lost at least 80 percent of its living reefs), the laboratory has spearheaded research to pinpoint the cause of these reef declines—and understand how to counteract them. What it’s finding is that one of the main culprits is oxybenzone, the primary chemical used in conventional sunscreens and which is found especially in many spray-on versions.
“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” says Craig Downs, PhD, executive director of the environmental lab Haereticus. “Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer or that a degraded area recovers.” Not surprisingly, oxybenzone is the same ingredient that has been under fire by the Environmental Working Group for its potential health risks, including allergies, immunotoxicity and endocrine disruption. (Get our list of eight toxic sunscreen ingredients to avoid.)
Goldstein works with mineral sunscreen companies, such as Goddess Garden Organics, to raise awareness about the issue of ocean-harming sunscreens and believes that consumer awareness, coupled with research and conscious business, could create sea change for reefs.
For both the environmental and health reasons, more sunscreen manufacturers are turning to mineral alternative zinc oxide to replace common chemicals. And although you may see “Reef Safe” or “Reef Friendly” claims on labels, the terms are not regulated, making label-reading a must.
“Look on the back of your sunscreen container at the ingredients and consider saying ‘no’ to chemical-based sunscreens made of the ‘toxic eight,’” says All Good CEO Caroline Duell. Confused by all these –ones and –ates? Seeking out sunscreen labeled “oxybenzone-free” is a good place to start, suggests Goldstein.
Companies including All Good, Goddess Garden and Raw Elements are among the mineral sunscreen crusaders committed to developing sunscreens that are safe for both oceans and you. That requires formulations that use non-nano zinc oxide and other skin-nourishing, plant-based ingredients. “Non-nanoparticle zinc oxide offers the most effective UVA/ UVB broad-spectrum sun protection in the world, and as a coral reef–safe ingredient, is the best choice for your skin and the ocean’s ecosystem,” says Duell. Another plus: Mineral sunscreen companies are also working hard to make sure the zinc doesn’t go on thick and gloppy (no white streaks!), by blending other ocean-safe botanical ingredients to create smoother, easier-to-apply products.