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Your Ultimate Guide to Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Planning your next beach vacation? Better pack carefully. There’s a good chance the sunscreen you slather on is contributing to massive ecosystem damage. When most people think of ocean pollution, they refer to the plastic waste that finds its way into our water, overlooking the estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen which enter the world’s reefs annually, as according to the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

Fortunately, it’s possible to protect your skin without harming marine life and polluting the ocean, so whether you want to plan for a vacation or advocate for the environment at large, keep reading to learn the ins and outs of coral reef safe sunscreen.

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How does chemical sunscreen work? 

Before delving into the complexities of sunscreen and the ways in which it can harm our ecosystem, we first need to ask, “how does sunscreen work” The answer is twofold: chemical sunscreen and mineral sunscreen work in different ways.
Chemical sunscreen contains carbon-based active ingredients that absorb UVA and UVB radiation upon contact with your skin. During the chemical reaction, UV rays convert to heat, which is then released from the skin before they can penetrate the dermis and cause damage. However, the same active ingredients which are known to absorb UV rays are also known for absorbing into our skin where they then wreak havoc in our system. Worse yet, when rinsed off in the ocean, chemical sunscreen can destroy living ecosystems such as coral reefs.
Let’s take a look at some of the common active ingredients in chemical formulas and explain why they should be avoided if you’re looking for healthy, reef-friendly sunscreen solution:

  • 4-Methylbenzylidine Camphor: This UV filter can be reabsorbed into the skin and has been shown to display estrogenic effects on reproductive systems as well as strong anti-osteoporotic effects on humans and animals. It also causes coral bleaching.

  • Avobenzone: Although this ingredient is the most frequently used UVA chemical filter, it’s very unstable, meaning it degrades quickly in sunlight.

  • Butylparaben: Certain parabens (preservatives) such as butyl or methyl, intended to increase the shelf life of sunscreen, are toxic to marine life. They were originally used as a mass fish anaesthetic and they also cause coral bleaching.

  • Octinoxate: This chemical filter is readily absorbed by skin and is a known endocrine disruptor. Not only does it disrupt your thyroid gland (the master gland of the endocrine system), it can also cause bleaching in coral reefs.

  • Octisalate: While this filter protects against UVB radiation, it also enhances the skin’s permeability. This means that if your chemical sunscreen contains harmful ingredients, it’s more likely to enter your body if Octisalate is present in the formula.

  • Octocrylene: This protects against UVA and UVB rays, but it also increases the production of free radicals when exposed to sunlight.

  • Oxybenzone: Due to its ability to absorb UVA and UVB rays, Oxybenzone is one of the most widely used chemical sunscreen ingredients. However, this lipophilic (or “fat-loving”) ingredient crosses over the skin barrier very easily—and within 30 minutes, is present in the urine of 96% of those who apply it. Once in our bodies, it disrupts our endocrine system and deregulates hormonal functioning. With respect to marine life, it damages DNA which may lead to developmental abnormalities and/or cancer. Moreover, it causes deformation in juvenile coral and leads to bleaching—and ultimately, death.

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Coral reef has been ravaged by the global bleaching caused by chemical sunscreen ingredients, specifically Oxybenzone. Normally, corals bleach—expelling algae living in their tissues—when water is too warm, or above 27.6 °C. When in contact with Oxybenzone, corals will bleach at 25.5 degrees (a non-bleaching temperature) and it only takes a few hours for the chemical to do its damage. The coral turns white, an indicator that it’s in danger of dying, and the accompanying marine life—which thrives off its ecosystem—abandons the reef.

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Although coral can survive bleaching events due to spikes in water temperatures, the toxic pollutants in chemical sunscreen are placing reefs under increased stress and jeopardizing their mortality. From Hawaii to Guam, Australia to the Caribbean, these diverse ecosystems have been dramatically suffering. Scientists aren’t sure how long it may take them to recover, or what they could potentially look like afterward, making the need for coral reef safe sunscreen all the more pressing.

What are the alternatives?

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Zinc Oxide Sunscreen 

The first option for reef friendly sunscreen is made with the active ingredient zinc oxide. Zinc oxide sunscreen is also called  “mineral” or "physical sunscreen"; the mineral is intended to rest on top of your skin where it physically scatters and refracts the sun’s rays as opposed to chemically converting the light to heat.

There is no evidence that zinc oxide harms coral. This powerful mineral defends against both UVA and UVB rays, offering broad spectrum coverage in an eco-friendly sunscreen formula.

Titanium Dioxide Sunscreen 

Similarly to zinc oxide, titanium dioxide provides a protective barrier on top of your skin and works by reflecting UV light instead of absorbing it. This mineral, reef safe sunscreen also offers broad spectrum coverage with defense against UVA and UVB rays and is even more effective when combined with zinc oxide. Titanium Dioxide washes off your skin safely and is a biodegradable sunscreen which causes no harm to coral reefs and other marine life.

Because these all-natural, mineral ingredients wash safely off your skin and settle into the sediment, they compose coral friendly biodegradable sunscreen that protects the ocean in addition to your skin. Wearing environmentally friendly sunscreen should be among everybody’s top priority, whether you’re snorkeling in the tropics or attending a picnic in the central United States.

Considering how harmful chemical ingredients can be to our own endocrine and reproductive systems—in addition to the dangers posed to marine animal and plant life—wearing toxic free sunscreen is common sense.
The legislation passed in Hawaii banning chemical sunscreen is a positive first step in preserving our oceans and what’s left of our reefs, but individuals must take it upon themselves to find and wear environmentally friendly sunscreen without avobenzone and oxybenzone. Colorescience makes it easy, with our assortment of UV protectors that are bereft of any harsh chemicals known to damage our oceans and ourselves.

Colorescience line of all-natural SPF can be found in a number of strengths in a variety of formulas—from liquids to powders—all of which feature chemical free sunscreen protection. We make reapplying throughout the day simple, so you never need to worry about harming the environment while shielding your skin from the damaging effects of the sun. Browse our assortment of the best reef-safe sunscreenproducts to find the perfect match for your skin type.