From a distance, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is an underwater gem. The reef’s colorful corals serve as a submerged garden for a vibrant marine ecosystem that draws visitors to the area from all over the world. Snorkelers and scuba-divers alike can swim alongside some of the thousands of species of fish that make the reef their home. Lucky travelers might even catch a glimpse of the ecosystem’s dugongs or sea turtles.
But the ecosystem is fragile. Rising temperatures and harmful chemicals leaching into the water are bleaching the once-thriving reef. Human visitors might even be carrying some of these toxins on their skin.
When you swim with sunscreen on, chemicals like oxybenzone can seep into the water, where they’re absorbed by corals. These substances can disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles, ultimately leading to bleaching.
Even if you don’t go swimming after applying sunscreen, it can still go down drains when you shower. Aerosol can often spray large amounts of sunscreen onto sand, where it gets washed into our oceans. Each year, about 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in our oceans.
Humans might be responsible for this contamination, but we’re also capable of helping heal these fragile underwater ecosystems. On May 1, lawmakers in Hawaii passed a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, another harmful chemical. Hawaii is the first state to pass such a measure, and it could go into effect as a law by January 1, 2021. (Related: “Your Bright Idea Could Save the Biggest Reef on Earth”)
On November 1, the small island nation of Palau announced they too would ban selling or using sunscreens that contain chemicals harmful to coral reefs. Palau is a pristine archipelago known for having one of the largeset marine reserves on the planet.
Coral reefs all over the world are threatened by pollution, and many of the most popular destination spots have the most at-risk coral. In addition to the Great Barrier Reef, heavy human traffic in the bays of Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Israel are especially vulnerable.
Oahu’s Hanauma Bay, a state park that was formed within a volcanic cone, is one such example. The area’s turquoise surf and vibrant coral gardens draw nearly one million tourists each year, making the spot one of Hawaii’s best places for snorkeling. The bay is home to 450 species of fish and has the largest mass of reef anywhere in Oahu.
Hurricane Hole at the Virgin Islands Coral Reef National Monument, located off Saint John, is another popular spot. The submerged monument protects 22 miles of marine habitat, including 30 coral species. Here, visitors can snorkel in the mangroves with coral, fish, and marine invertebrates.
Israel’s popular Eilat Coral Beach Nature Reserve is another example. The Gulf of Eilat houses the country’s only coral reefs, which are a major draw for tourists. Bridges built over top of the reefs allow visitors to get a peek at the coral and colorful fish it houses. Scuba divers can also dive along the front and slope of the reef for a more intimate view.
If we lose coral reefs, we will have lost a vital ecosystem. We could also hurt our global economy—coral reefs are a major tourist attraction and source of income for these popular vacation spots. (Related: “How One Country Is Restoring Its Damaged Ocean”)
Steps for Reef Safety
Even with government bans, certain types of sunscreen can be used to protect against burns and skin cancer. The good news is there are alternatives that are safer—for people and for coral—that don’t include harmful chemicals.
Haereticus Environmental Lab publishes a list each year of what sunscreens are safe for the environment, and organizations like the Environmental Working Group also publish a safe sunscreen guide. Mineral-based sunblocks that use titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are safer than the oxybenzone-containing alternatives. Sunscreens with “non-nano” size particles are safer because they can’t be ingested by corals. Some sunscreens have a combination of nano-size and non-nano size particles, and the Consumer Products Inventory has a database that can tell you if your sunscreen contains nanoparticles.
Some tour companies in popular destinations like Mexico make it mandatory for visitors to wear only biodegradable sunscreen. Select Hawaiian resorts and airlines give out free reef-safe sunscreen samples that don’t contain harmful chemicals. Many of these resorts will let patrons know of these restrictions in advance or list it on their websites.
Dermatologists say clothing is just as effective as sunscreen at protecting from the sun, with the only downside being it doesn’t completely cover the body. Many companies offer sun-protecting clothing, such as long-sleeve rash guards or full-body swimsuits. When all else fails, put on a t-shirt.
This story was originally published on April 20, 2018. It has been updated to reflect announcements made by the state of Hawaii and the government of Palau.