Sunscreens and their danger for coral reefs

Healthy reef
vs unhealthy reef

Sunscreens and their danger for coral reefs and ocean wild life

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A couple of months ago I heard about reef friendly sunscreen the first time. I grew up close to the baltic sea but not close to a coral reef, and I haven’t heard about that sunscreen is dangerous for the coral reefs before.

I was worried when I read about this danger, but quickly I researched there are many reef friendly/reef safe claimed sunscreens on the market already.
Only to discover some of them still use harmful ingredients in their products… 

It feels like green washing, same thing like with biodegradable plastic….
So besides knowing no sunscreen would be the very best for the coral reef, I wanted to know more about what’s happening to the reef and then what kind of sunscreen would be the happiest choice.

The problem

Here in Quintana Roo Mexico a lot of Travel Tours to Cenotes and snorkel spots don’t allow unsafe sunscreen anymore, but still some are not having an eye on this really and too many tourists don’t know and a few just don’t care.

A lot of turtles and fish are already developing cancer and the normally extremely clear water in the Cenotes have an oily surface where people are still using sunscreen. Corals are getting sick and bleach/die and since 50-70% of the air we breathe comes from the Ocean this made me curious to do some more research.

I was lucky enough (since I am in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico at the moment) that I met a girl from “Healthy Reefs for Healthy People” at a beach clean up and she connected me with Melina from the same organization who was open to share some facts and informations with us. The result is this fantastic guest post and I’m happy to share it with you.

And now I’d like to hand over to Melina:

The Mesoamerican Reef

The Mesoamerican Reef (MAR) is the world’s largest transboundary barrier reef, connected via a continuous marine corridor stretching from northern Quintana Roo in Mexico to the Bay Islands of Honduras. It encompasses over 1000 km of a complex coastal zone. 

This region is unique due its biodiversity where you can find mangrove, whale sharks, bull sharks, seagrass, over 60 species of corals, spiny lobsters, manatees, 500 species of fish and the list goes on and on! This biodiversity contributes to the livelihoods and food security for more than 2.2 million people, including indigenous communities such as Maya, Garifuna, K’ekchi and Miskito, as the main activities in the region are tourism and fishing.

Healthy Reefs for Healthy People

Healthy Reefs for Healthy People (HRI) was founded in 2004 answering the need of the Mesoamerican Reef countries, Mexico, Belize, Guatemala and Honduras to evaluate the impacts of their conservation actions following their official commitment to protect the MAR within the Tulum Declaration in 1997. The Initiative now gathers over 70 organizations from government, private sector, academia and organized civil society that collaborate in order to base participatory, adaptive management on sound scientific data.

HRI publishes every over year Reef Report Cards  that quantify the health of the reef, based on an index of living coral, fleshy macro algae, herbivorous and commercial fish biomass at over 300 sites. The Report Cards help tell a story of adequate management easy to understand by the general public but also key stakeholders such as decision makers. Over the last decade, thanks to a wise and continuous communication strategy, Reef Report Cards have become a tool for managers and policy makers: the recommendations and data are widely used in MPAs management plans and public policy, advocacy programs.

Global trends of widespread reef decline are mainly due to anthropogenic impacts: from global warming to overfishing and water contamination. It has been estimated that we have lost almost 50% of our reefs worldwide over the last 3 decades. The Mesoamerican Reef is no exception, the increase of macro algae, diseases and coral bleaching events are a testimony of these impacts.

Global warming leads to coral bleaching and stronger storm events that kill and destroy numerous coral reefs annually. Over fishing and many bad practices destroy physically the reefs, diminish species stocks and remove ecological important organisms such as herbivores. Water contamination originated from inadequate waste water treatment, run off from land and chemical exposure is the main cause for increased disease outbreaks on the reefs. Whereas global warming and over fishing need to be regulated on international and national level, water contamination needs local, bold, actions.

Monitoring the reef (Photo Credits: Luis Leal)
Monitoring the reef (Photo Credits: Luis Leal)

The danger of conventional Sunscreen and mass tourism

Coral reefs are thought to generate over 30 billion USD to the world economy through tourism and fisheries. In Quintana Roo, the tourism alone has generated around 9,000 million USD last year, with over 15 million visitors from all over the world covering themselves with sunscreen to avoid getting burnt while enjoying the white sand beaches, snorkeling and diving the reefs.

Oxybenzone and Octinoxate are active components used as UV filters in numerous sunscreens, their structure absorbs the energy from sun light and through their molecule’s vibration disperse that energy, impending it to reach the skin and protecting it against affectations that lead to skin cancer. However, this chemical structure also represents numerous threats to aquatic organisms. 

There is a growing body of evidence, since almost 2 decades, that these components have negative effects on numerous aquatic organisms such as fish, invertebrates and birds. They are endocrine disruptors, which means that they mimic hormones altering normal metabolism process like growth or reproduction, animals can not reproduce normally. They also can cause oxidative stress, a series of reactions in the cells of the organisms that cause them to be more susceptible to develop diseases and cancer. 
In humans, Oxybenzone and Octinoxate have been found in breast milk as they “stick” to fatty tissues, passing and beginning to accumulate hence to the new born.
Corals are not the exception, they are also affected and are shown to bleach and get bacterial infections due to these compounds.
Corals are the building blocks of one of the most productive ecosystems on Earth, which are already facing numerous threats, this why several initiatives are rising worldwide to ban the use of Oxybenzone and Octinoxate from our personal care products list.

Although extra care has to be taken when choosing your sunscreen as some products advertised as “reef safe” or “biodegradable” actually include them in their active ingredients. These labels sometimes just refer to the inactive ingredients, the “cream” part of the sunscreen which is indeed made with biodegradable components. Just make sure to look for the active ingredients and that they do not include oxybenzone (or Benzophenone 3) nor Octinoxate (or Octyl Methoxycinnamate)!

A dead coral reef. No colors, no fish, no life..... (Photo Credits Marisol Rueda)
vs a healthy reef with a lot of fish, colorful corals... (Photo Credits Marisol Rueda)

What can we do?

Fortunately, they are numerous alternatives to the use of these compounds such as Zinc Oxyde (ZnO) or Titanium Dioxide (TiO2), in their non-nano particle form, which are safer minerals also used as UV filter in sunscreens. Numerous commercial and artisanal brands (NOTE: here in Playa Del Carmen, Mexico: Xtabay, Ahal, I found reef safe sunscreen from Avene in the dermatology pharmacy in 10th Av with 2nd street in Playa) use these alternative formulations, ask for them at your favorite skin products store or check online using this very useful website: www.ewg.org

But the even better solution to avoid sunburns is to stay in the shade, wear a hat and use a rash guard! (Side note from The Happy Choices: “Here in Mexico I always just go swimming in the morning or evening, without any sunscreen and without the risk of getting sunburned.”)

To protect the ocean and the reef please remember to reduce your carbon footprint that causes global climate change by reducing your consumption of single use plastics such as shopping bags, straws, your use of car and fossil energy altogether.

Also be aware of your actions to prevent contamination of water ways where you live. 
​Support and get involved with your communities initiatives of recycling, beach cleaning and environmental protection, it always gives a sense of belonging to participate for the greater good, you won’t regret it!
-Melina from Healthy Reefs for Healthy People

Conclusion: 3 Tips for a healthy reef and healthy people:

  1. Check the ingredients on every reef friendly sunscreen before you buy it (claimed reef friendly is not always reef friendly): Don’t buy it if it includes Oxybenzone (or Benzophenone), Octisalate (butyloctyl salicylate) nor Octinoxate (or Octyl Methoxycinnamate).
  2. Buy biodegradable sunscreen with NON-NANO Zinc Oxyde (ZnO) (e.g. RawElements*) or Titanium Dioxide (TiO2). A few brands already offer sunscreens available in glass**tins** or paper sticks**. Or make your own with non-nano zinc oxide and natural oils. I tried it and am very happy with the result.  
  3. Avoid the midday heat, go swimming in the morning or evening. Stay in the shade and wear a hat and UV shirt**. (Note: The UV sun power is different from country to country, so yes early mornings can have a really high UV power already, so make sure to check that to stay healthy.)

​Remember: we need a healthy ocean! It provides us with oxygen, food, and some great experiences when snorkeling, diving, surfing, swimming… Let’s help to keep it healthy.
Happy choices for the Ocean are happy choices for us too!

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