Hawai’i! Tropical sun, swaying palms, active volcanoes, sandy beaches, snorkeling with the fishes - living the aloha life! First, better lather up on sunscreen- Right? WHOA! Even if you do not go into the sea, by spraying on your sunscreen, (which mostly ends up in the wind anyway- bad for the environment AND waste of money!), or simply by showering-off after your day out, your sunscreen can end up in the ocean. Without careful choices, your chemical protection from the sun could make you a direct threat to this struggling, fragile ecosystem!
Coral reefs are actually made up of millions of tiny animals, called “polyps”, living in stone houses that they build. These are the stony corals. The polyps live in a symbiotic relationship with tiny little algae (called zooxanthellae) who live within the polyps’ bodies; the polyp provides shelter while the algae, using the process of photosynthesis, provides food.
Every year, somewhere between 5,000 and 14,000 TONS of sunscreen end up in our coral reefs, 90% of it concentrated in popular tourist sites! One of the most extensively used chemicals in sunscreen is oxybenzone, which does a fine job at blocking the UVB rays that cause sunburn, but also has a devastating effect on the coral. Research shows us that Oxybenzone can deform coral in its larvae stage so they cannot develop properly, &/or it can limit their ability to float with currents by trapping them in their own skeletons. The chemical can cause DNA damage in adults, or awaken coral viruses that cause them to expel their life-giving algae. Ultimately, it kills the coral.
What to do?
First off: Don't lose your hard earned vacation to sunburn!
Be careful, but choose wisely!
To do this, the U.S. National Park Service recommends:
COVER UP: You can protect yourself as well as the reef by ‘covering-up’ before you enter the water. On the water, wear hats, sunglasses and light, long-sleeved clothing to protect you. In the water, a long-sleeved shirt or rash guard will help prevent sunburn.
CHECK THE LABELS: While no sunscreen has been proven to be completely ‘reef-friendly,’ those with titanium oxide or zinc oxide, which are natural mineral ingredients, have not been found harmful to corals. Sunscreens sold for children or for those with sensitive skin may contain these gentler compounds as the active ingredients. The EWG (Environmental Working Group) lists some great examples on their website found HERE.
Remember, if it’s on your skin, it’s on the reef. Be reef friendly! Reduce the amount of sunscreen you leave behind…