Coral reefs are some of the most beautiful, diverse ecosystems on the planet. Chemicals in many sunscreens can destroy reefs. You can protect coral reefs by using mineral-based sunscreens and wearing sun-protective clothing.
ReefLove is a campaign to spread the word about the damage to coral reefs caused by chemical-containing personal care products. Many personal care products, sunscreen among them, contain chemicals that kill corals in a process called bleaching. These chemicals are great for sun protection, but they are harmful to marine life, and there is increasing evidence that they aren’t so good for humans.
The good news is that there are great alternatives for sun protection that don’t involve these chemicals. By covering up instead of slathering on chemicals, you protect the reef and protect yourself!
what is a reef?
Reefs are incredibly diverse living communities made up of corals and the organisms that live in and around them. Corals are invertebrates in the phylum Cnidaria. They come in two forms: soft corals, called Alcyonacea, and hard corals, called Scleractinia. Soft corals don’t form reefs, but they are often found in reef ecosystems. Reefs are primarily composed of hard corals, also known as stony corals. Reefs form when a free-floating coral larva, or a planula, encounters some sort of nonliving marine object (e.g. a boulder or a shipwreck) and attaches itself. Soon, it begins to develop a rock-like exoskeleton, and as more coral polyps join and build exoskeletons, the reef begins to grow.
All of this info came from the NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program website. Check it out for a more detailed look at coral anatomy!
why are reefs important?
Reefs provide incredibly rich and diverse environments. In addition to the beautiful and ancient reef itself (some reefs date back thousands of years1), more than a million different creatures2 live in and around the corals! Brightly colored fish, sea turtles, anemones, sharks, seahorses, and clams are just a few of the incredible wildlife found in this ecosystem.
what is coral bleaching?
We’re losing our coral reefs- and quickly. More than 60% of corals are at risk of bleaching3, or losing their color and dying. To understand bleaching, you have to take a closer look at the anatomy of a coral polyp. Inside the coral’s stomach tissue are found microscopic organisms called zooxanthellae, a type of photosynthetic algae. These algae have a symbiotic relationship with the coral- in other words, they each benefit from the other’s presence. The algae provide the coral with energy, and the coral gives the algae shelter and the necessary nutrients for photosynthesis.
However, when the coral comes into contact with something dangerous, it expels the zooxanthellae to ensure its own survival, which turns the coral white. Although this allows it to survive temporarily, the coral starves, as the zooxanthellae provided most of its energy4.
what causes coral bleaching?
Many things contribute to coral bleaching: oil spills, rising ocean temperatures, and salinity changes are all culprits. However, one unexpected factor that is directly linked to coral bleaching is exposure to chemical products often found in personal care products such as sunscreen. These chemicals wash off our bodies when we jump into the ocean covered in sunscreen containing oxybenzone5 and a handful of other chemicals such as avobenzone, octisalate, octinoxate, octocrylene, homosalate. These chemicals often end up on coral reefs- in fact, about 5 tons of sunscreen washes off of our bodies and onto reefs every year6.
are all sunscreens bad for reefs?
Sunscreens containing mineral ingredients such as zinc or titanium oxides are better options than chemical-based sunscreens. Studies are still underway, but they appear to have substantially less impact on coral and other marine life. However, the easiest way to help reduce sunscreen-related bleaching is to use less sunscreen in general! Instead of putting on extra sunscreen, it’s a lot easier to simply wear a hat, put on a shirt, and use sunscreen as your last resort instead of your first option.7
1 “How Coral Reefs Grow | Coral Reef Alliance”. Coral.org.
2 “What Species Live In And Around Coral Reefs?”. Oceanservice.noaa.gov.
3“Global Coral Bleaching 2014-2017: Status And An Appeal For Observations”. Coralreefwatch.noaa.gov.
4“Coral Bleaching – GBRMPA”. Gbrmpa.gov.au.
5Downs, C. A. et al. “Toxicopathological Effects Of The Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), On Coral Planulae And Cultured Primary Cells And Its Environmental Contamination In Hawaii And The U.S. Virgin Islands”. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology 70.2 (2015): 265-288.
6Danovaro, Roberto et al. “Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching By Promoting Viral Infections”. Environmental Health Perspectives (2008): 441-7.
7Toline, C. Anna. “Protect Yourself, Protect The Reef”. National Park Service.
why stay out of the sun?
We love the sun! It plays a part in everything we do, from shining light on our everyday activities to allowing plants to bloom and grow. However, the consequences of going out in the sun unprotected from UV rays are really unpleasant- sunburns hurt and can lead to even worse skin damage later on!1
what’s the problem with sunscreen?
The first thought that pops into our heads when we imagine sun protection is sunscreen. Simply spray it on, and you’re immediately protected from harmful radiation! However, we often forget that this protection only lasts for two hours at most and often washes off quickly in water. We also tend to not to read the labels on our sunscreen bottles: it’s easy to forget that when we put on sunscreen, we’re rubbing a chemical cocktail all over our bodies. These chemicals have been shown to have negative effects on the environment2; just think about how they might affect our skin!
Here are some chemicals to watch out for3:
- 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
- para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
- methyl paraben
- ethyl paraben
- propyl paraben
- butyl paraben
- benzyl paraben
WARNING: Just because a sunscreen says “reef-safe” on it DOES NOT mean that it doesn’t contain these chemicals! There are no rules about using that term- don’t be fooled!
do all sunscreens have these chemicals?
Check out sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide: most have only mineral-based ingredients that are skin and have substantially less impact to marine life!
is there an easy way to avoid these chemicals?
The easiest way to protect yourself from the sun is to simply cover yourself up from the sun’s rays! A UPF 50+ t-shirt is even more effective than sunscreen, and, believe it or not, won’t wash off in the water like sunscreen will4. Plus, covering up can protect places that sunscreen can’t reach: wearing a hat and sunglasses not only protects your face from early aging and sunburn- it also protects your eyes from macular degeneration and your scalp from sunburn and skin damage!
Some of the best alternatives to sunscreen were developed for surfers- rashguards, board shorts, spring suits (shorty wetsuits), and wetsuits themselves are all great protection from the sun, and they provide a fashionable, sleek look in the water!
For some great sun-safe outfit inspiration, check out our blog!
1“Protect Yourself, Protect the Reef!”. Cdhc.noaa.gov.
2Danovaro, Roberto et al. “Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching By Promoting Viral Infections”. Environmental Health Perspectives (2008): 441-7.
3“Protect Land + Sea Certification – Haereticus”. Haereticus-lab.org
4“Could Sun-Protective Clothing Replace Sunscreen?”. Scientific American. 2009.
Check out these downloadable resources to help you share the ReefLove!
Activities for Children
Printable Placemats: These place mats feature pictures of reef animals that your kids (or you – if you are a crafty colorer!) can decorate. They also feature fun facts about coral reefs and reef-friendly options for sun protection. We like to use the place mats as templates for water color resist projects. Just trace the lines in brightly colored crayon and fill in the shapes with beautiful watercolors to make your own reef. Cover the finished project with contact paper for a low-cost lamination so you can wipe and enjoy your new place mat each morning.
Lesson Plan: How Well are You Protected? In this activity, students use sun-sensitive paper to compare the effectiveness of different materials and types of sunscreen. Through this activity, they determine if alternatives that are less harmful to marine life are as effective as chemical-based sunscreens.
Download lesson plan here.
Web Sites and Online Articles
Check out these web sites and articles for more information on…
Impact of personal care products on coral and other marine life:
- Haereticus Environmental Laboratory A non-profit scientific organization dedicated to increasing the scientific, social and economic knowledge of natural environmental habitats in order to better conserve and restore threatened environmental habitats and resources.
- “Lathering Up With Sunscreen May Protect Against Cancer – Killing Coral Reefs Worldwide” 2015 article on the University of Central Florida Today website describing the impact of sunscreen on coral reefs.
- “Sunscreen Pollution” Article by Dr. Craig Downs on AlertDiverOnline, the online magazine of Divers Alert Network, which is the largest association of recreational scuba divers in the world.
- “Why Hawaii Is Trying To Ban A Common Sunscreen” Online Popular Science article about pending legislation in Hawaii to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone.
- “Looking for a Reef-Safe Sunscreen? Ask a Surfer” Online Conde Nast Traveler article about impact of sunscreen on marine life and reef-friendly alternatives.
- Danovaro, Roberto et al. “Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections.” Environmental Health Perspectives; 16.4, Apr 2008, pp. 441-7. Journal article describing the relationship between sunscreen and coral bleaching.
U.S. coral reefs:
- NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program Website containing scientific and educational information about coral reefs and reef threats, health, and monitoring programs as well as current news related to the coral reefs and lesson plans for teachers.
- U.S. National Park Service: Underwater Website containing information and multimedia about the underwater resources protected by the U.S. National Park Service, including coral reefs as well as other ocean and freshwater sites. This website also includes a downloadable Underwater Explorer Jr. Ranger booklet.
Coral reefs around the world:
- Smithsonian Ocean Portal: Corals and Coral Reefs. Website containing scientific and educational information about coral reef research past and present, including lesson plans for teachers.
- National Geographic Coral Reef Collection. Website containing scientific and educational information about corals and coral reefs around the world, including lesson plans for teachers.
Have a suggestion for a great website? Send it to us?