Body + Wellness

Why you should use reef-safe sunscreen for your next beach holiday (and where you can buy one)


By Wei Yeen Loh

Why you should use reef-safe sunscreen for your next beach holiday (and where you can buy one)

Back in 2008, a study on the correlation between sunscreens and coral mortality was published with eye-opening results: it was found that almost 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen get transferred from swimmers and snorkellers into coral reefs each year.

Here’s another perspective: approximately 14,000,000 kilograms of sunscreen (about 60 million bottles) are factored in the acceleration of coral bleaching alongside the decreasing rate of coral growth every year.

These startling figures paint a stark reality for our ecosystem in the long run. “By 2020, over one billion people around the world will be visiting oceans for recreation and tourism,” says analytical environmental chemist Felix R. Roman-Velazquez from the University of Puerto Rico. “We’re talking about lots of sunscreen that is going to be dumped into the ocean.”

But before we bunch our swimsuits up in a frenzy and start staying away from ocean recreation (as a bid to ensure that coral reefs have a better chance of existing by the time you have grandchildren), here are some key facts you ought to know about the ingredients in our sunscreens:

1) Two chemicals have been directly linked to coral damage: oxybenzone and octinoxate. Both are the most widely-used UV blockers in the world and are found in many products, including makeup, toys and furniture.

2) Other ingredients such as butylparaben, octocrylene, triclosan and even 4MBC (aka 4-Methylbenzylidene-camphor aka enzacamene) have been proven to harm coral reefs as well.

As a bid to better protect ocean ecosystems, some marine hotspots including Hawaii and Key West in USA and the archipelago of Palau in the Micronesia region have banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.

If you’re planning your next beach holiday anytime soon, here are some tips you should consider before buying a new bottle of sunscreen:

1) Steer clear from chemical sunscreens. These usually have the above-mentioned ingredients that aren’t reef-safe.

2) Look for non-nano zinc oxide in the ingredient list. This indicates that the zinc oxide particles are bigger than 100 nanometers—a safe size that will not be absorbed by corals or sink into our skin/bloodstream either (although, there are no conclusive evidence of its potential effects on our health).

3) Alternatively, look for titanium dioxide—typically found in physical (mineral) sunscreens. Recent research has found that it might be more eco-compatible than zinc dioxide, with no correlation to coral bleaching.

4) Use water-resistant sunscreens to better prevent the ingredients from washing off your body/face into the waters.

5) Better yet, wear clothing with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) or rashguards, wetsuits, and the like to protect your skin from the sun. That way, you can minimise the amount of sunscreen applied over your body.

6) Don’t fall for labels on the sunscreen bottle—always pore over the ingredient list to better glean what’s in your sunscreen. One of the seals that we can vouch for is the Protect Land + Sea Certification by non-profit scientific organisation Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL). Any product bearing this seal indicates it is free of chemicals that are known pollutants in many different environments or wildlife.

While there is no singular sunscreen in the market now that is absolutely safe for the environment and for your skin, these relatively ocean-friendly options are available for you to score online:

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