You’re headed to the beach so you make sure you have the right protection: a swimsuit, sandals, a towel and of course, sunscreen. But did you know that the sunscreen you’re using might be killing the very coral reef you set out to see?
Chemical sunscreens are popular because of their ease of use. They don’t leave the ubiquitous white sheen and are also typically cheaper. Yet the ingredients that make these sunscreens work have been found to bleach coral and damage sea life. The chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate in particular, have been shown by scientists to damage coral DNA, reduce the temperature healthy coral will bleach, and can kill coral larvae in concentrations as low as 62 parts per trillion, shares Autumn Blum the founder of Stream2Sea, a coral-reef safe skincare and suncare company. That means that a single drop of oxybenzone in an amount of water equal to 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools is enough to kill coral. The research was conducted and published by the non-profit, Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL), who in 2015, surveyed Trunk Bay Beach on St. John, finding that more than 6,000 pounds of sunscreen was deposited on the reef annually.
There are other enemies of the coral reef, including ocean warming, sewage dumping and agricultural run-off. And if you think that you’re doing okay because you didn’t actually get into the ocean water, you’re wrong. When you take your shower, the run-off of the sunscreen still makes its way through sewage systems, and in the end still damages the coral reef. And that’s not the end of it. “Many of these ingredients also bioaccumulate in the body,” shares Blum, “and have suspected and documented health concerns.”
HEL estimates that 14,000 tons of sunscreen is deposited in the world’s oceans each year. To help combat the problem, they suggest everyone use reef-safe sunscreen, avoiding: any form of microplastic sphere or beads, any nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (non-nano is good though), oxybenzone, octinoxate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, octocrylene, para-aminobenzoic acid, methyl paraben, ethyl paraben, propyl paraben, butyrl paraben, benzyl paraben, and triclosan.
Alternative sunscreens are physical sunscreens, meaning they rely upon ingredients that physically block the sun’s rays as opposed to chemicals like oxybenzone. More and more sunscreens are coming onto the market as environmentalists, surfers, and divers start to look for, and sometimes even create, their own formulations. Blum is one such example. Diving since she was 15, she noticed how reefs that once had beautiful healthy coral were dying and diseased only a few years later. As a cosmetic chemist, she has worked in the natural product and spa industry for more than 20 years. Yet, shares Blum, “It wasn’t until I saw an oil slick coming off a group of sunscreen-slathered snorkelers that I realized I might be able to make something healthier for us and for our waters.”
Brian Guadagno, founder and CEO of Raw Elements, is another such case. A former lifeguard, Guadagno developed a non-nano zinc oxide-based formula that is safe for the environment. To encourage folks to give it a try, he partnered with Hawaiian Airlines just this past spring, offering all travelers sample sizes. I was one of those travelers, headed to Maui in May, and sampled the Raw Elements Face + Body Lotion. Not only did it blend in much easier than previous zinc-oxide formulations I’ve tried, but it also contained nourishing ingredients like green tea, hemp seed oil, and cocoa and mango butters.
On May 1st, Hawaii became the first state to pass a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing chemicals that harm coral reefs. The legislation prohibits the distribution of sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate and goes into effect on January 1, 2021.
While this is monumental, says Blum, “We don’t need to wait for the government to ban these ingredients. Consumers drive the market and have the ability to quickly manifest positive change. Shampoos and conditioners can be even more toxic than sunscreen, and the conscious consumer needs to be concerned with ingredients in their other products as well.
“I love our oceans and am a passionate believer that every positive drop in the bucket is a step in the right direction. The buckets add up to lakes and oceans. While we all recognize that climate change and pollution are extremely important factors in the decline of coral reefs worldwide, I believe that anything we do in our daily lives to reduce our negative impact is important. It’s not easy for an individual to reduce climate change and overpopulation, but we CAN easily change what we chose to apply on our bodies.”
Ready to protect your skin and the coral? Try these HL&S approved sunscreens:
Think Sport Everyday Face Spf 30+ ($12.99): Lightly-tinted, this zinc oxide-based sunscreen is rated a #1 in EWG’s Skip Deep Database. Water-resistant, its easy to apply and blends in well. We also love their Kids Sunscreen.
Suntegrity 5 in 1 Natural Moisturizing Facial Sunscreen ($45): This facial sunscreen takes it a step further, combining sunscreen with BB cream benefits to help hydrate, protect and heal the skin. Enriched with hyaluronic acid, red algae and organic aloe vera, cucumber and green tea, this non-nano zinc-oxide based sunscreen is great for daily use.
Babo Botanicals Clear Zinc Sunscreen SPF 30 ($20) This non-nano zinc oxide-based sunscreen is easy to apply as it’s a very thin formulation. This is an excellent sunscreen for the whole family.
Raw Elements Tinted Facial Moisturizer ($18) With their strong commitment to the environment, Raw Elements has dedicated a portion of their sunscreen line to plastic-free containers. This tinted face moisturizer comes in a balm and is easy to apply on areas that receive constant sun exposure, including ears, and the bridge of the nose.
Stream2Sea Sport Sunscreen for Face and Body ($17.95) Made with green tea, holy basil, aloe, olive leaf extract as well as biofermented ingredients that are designed to help minimize damage on the cellular level, Stream2Sea was formulated by Autumn Blum, a cosmetic chemist and avid environmentalist who spent her life in the water—she’s been a certified diver since the age of 14, and is a SCUBA instructor.
All Good Sunscreen Butter ($10; $3.50): This formulation is very water-resistant and is NSF certified organic. Enriched with coconut oil and calendula flowers, and 25 percent zinc oxide, the butter will provide hours of protection. We also love their SPF 20 Coconut Lip Balm, protecting one of the more sensitive areas of the body!
Kokua Natural Zinc Sunscreen ($30): This easy to blend sunscreen is SPF 50 and water resistant; made using 7 Hawaii-grown antioxidant-rich ingredients including KonaRed Hawaiian Coffee Fruit Extract, Noni, Spiraling, plumeria, honey, and macadamia and kukui nut oils.
Toxic Ingredients to avoid:
Part of the problem with physical sunscreens is that they are a bit more challenging to apply—at first. Watch this video from Autumn Blum to get the system down (and to make sure you’re using the right amount!
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