Healthy Living

Why I Only Wear Reef Safe Sunscreen (and You Should, Too)

Sunscreen chemicals are killing coral reefs. Learn how to find reef safe sunscreen that won't turn you into a ghost on the beach.

May is Skin Cancer Awareness Month, which is great for people but often fails to keep in mind the planet: Many awareness campaigns from sunscreen companies don’t disclose that the chemicals in their products can damage ecosystems — especially in the ocean. Are you using reef safe sunscreen? Here’s how to find out.

It happens every time I go to the beach. A friend will ask, “Want to use my spray?” I politely decline, preferring instead to slather on the reef safe sunscreen that I’ve been using for years. Today, these mineral sunscreens go on just as smooth as their chemical counterpoints. The one big difference? They don’t harm the environment — or me. 

What’s in Your Sunscreen?

Flip over the tube and scan for these ingredients: 3,4-methylbenzylidenecamphor; benzophenone; butyl methoxydibenzoylmethane; ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate; ethylhexyl salicylate; octocrylene; octyl methoxycinnamate; oxybenzone. These chemical sunscreens can contaminate water supplies. Also known as Parsol 1789, oxybenzone is the most widely used and contributes to coral bleaching.

Friends don’t let friends hurt reefs.

Why Are Coral Reefs important?

Coral reefs buffer shorelines from erosion and protect against storms and floods. Known as the rainforests of the sea, they provide habitat and shelter for 25% of all known marine organisms — as well as essential nutrients for marine food chains. Along with coastal seagrass and mangroves, coral reefs also act as carbon sinks — enormous sponges that suck carbon dioxide out of the air.

Coral Reefs Are in Danger

Today, these precious ecosystems are under constant stress from climate change, overfishing, and pollution — including some chemicals found in sunscreen. When they are in danger, they turn pale or white — a process called coral bleaching. A full 14% of the world’s corals were lost between 2009 and 2018 — and as much as 90% could be gone by 2050 if we don’t take action to limit global warming.

Clearly, coral reefs are worth protecting.

Reef Safe Sunscreen 101

So what can you do? Read your labels and choose better sunscreen. Look for “titanium” or “zinc” — these should be the only active ingredients listed on a label. These are known as “physical blockers” because they literally create a barrier between the sun and your skin, blocking UVA (aging and cancer-causing) and UVB (burning) rays. They’re not damaging to the environment and they’re completely safe for humans — including babies. And they protect reefs.

Natural Sunscreens No Longer Ghost You

Yes, zinc- and titanium-based, reef safe sunscreens used to make us look like ghosts on the beach. But that’s no longer true. Now, these sunscreens are formulated with mineral particles ground so fine that they smooth on just as easily as any other. Yes, you may have a hint of a pale sheen on your skin, but it’s not the white paste of yesterday — and it’s worth it, to safe a reef, right?

What are your favorite reef safe sunscreens? Please tell me about it in comments, below. Thanks!

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