Marine Biologist/Writer/Surfer
On the left, coral from Lizard Island bleached in March. Two months later, the image on the right was taken. The same coral is dead. Image: XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY VIA

On the left, coral from Lizard Island bleached in March. Two months later, the image on the right was taken. The same coral is dead. Image: XL CATLIN SEAVIEW SURVEY VIA ASSOCIATED PRESS

The Inertia

Every year, surfers flock to the globe’s most remote shorelines, all looking for their own share of a saltwater paradise. But finding pristine waves, unaltered coastlines and clear, blue water is becoming increasingly difficult. Last year coral reefs underwent a global bleaching event that resulted from record ocean temperatures. Marine debris, shoreline armoring, overfishing, and land-based pollution further contribute to major declines in ocean health. And now sunscreen – an essential ingredient for those summer surf trips – is on the long list of coral reef threats.

An estimated 4,000 – 6,000 tons of sunscreen are deposited on coral reefs each year. The vast majority includes the active ingredient oxybenzone. A known hormone disruptor, oxybenzone is used in sunscreens (and other personal care products) to filter harmful UV-rays.

In 2015, a scientific study linked oxybenzone to coral death. The chemical damages DNA in both adult and larval corals, severely disrupts coral development, and can lead to coral bleaching. Essentially, oxybenzone creates what scientists have dubbed “coral zombies.”

Even more alarming, sunscreen’s toxic effects manifest at very low concentrations – the equivalent to just one drop of water in 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools. And although the highest concentrations of oxybenzone were found on reefs popular with tourists, scientists warn that harmful chemicals from sunscreens can also enter the ocean via wastewater streams.


Photo: NOAA

Photo: NOAA

Where surfers are concerned, sunscreen is likely wreaking havoc on some of the world’s most iconic reef breaks. At the recent International Coral Reef Symposium, for example, scientists reported that concentrations of oxybenzone in Honolua Bay – an important surfing and snorkeling reef on Maui – were 30 times greater than detectable levels.

The good news is that “reef friendly” sunscreen options are available; ones that are safe for marine life and safe for you. Yet with thousands of sunscreen options to choose from, not to mention misleading marketing schemes, navigating the billion dollar sunscreen market is a major challenge.

Here are 7 major steps you can take toward “Reef Safe” sun care:

1. Opt for rashguards, long-sleeves, surf leggings, and other sunscreen alternatives.

The first step is to cut back on the amount of sunscreen you use, no matter how environmentally friendly it is. There are an increasing number of surf-based products that protect you from the sun, without compromising functionality.

2. Don’t be fooled by “reef safe” claims.

Reef Safe is a marketing term, plain and simple. There are no regulations guiding the use of the term, giving manufacturers free rein to label sunscreen “reef safe.” They can do this even if their product includes chemicals like oxybenzone.

3. Since you can’t trust “reef safe” claims, you must read the label.

Flip over that sunscreen bottle and look at the active ingredients. A product is truly reef safe if it contains zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as the only active ingredients.

4. To reiterate, avoid sunscreen products containing oxybenzone.

Please and thank you.

5. Choose products that use all natural ingredients.

In addition to oxybenzone many sunscreens are chock full of harmful additives. Look for sunscreens that derive ingredients from natural, plant-based sources like organic sunflower oil and organic beeswax. As always, be wary of ingredients that you can’t pronounce.

6. Opt for lotions over spray sunscreens.

Spray sunscreens don’t provide adequate coverage and there are concerns about inhalation.

7. Make sure your sunscreen is broad spectrum and water resistant.

Broad spectrum protects from both UVA and UVB rays, while water resistant will ensure that you stay protected both in and out of the water.

The Environmental Working Group publishes an annual sunscreen report. It is by far the most comprehensive authority on sunscreen products and safety. Take a few minutes to browse EWG’s top beach & sport sunscreens, which include Badger Sport Sunscreen (only 5 ingredients – all of them natural) and Raw Elements USA Eco Formula (thoroughly tested by extreme ocean athletes).

Most natural food stores carry mineral-based sunscreens, though a few options can be found hidden on the isles of national drug store chains. You can also purchase directly from the manufacturer online.

To further take the guesswork out of sunscreen purchases, check out the Be Reef Safe Initiative and download the “Reef Safe Sunscreen 101” guide. Supported by a diverse network of ocean users (including surfers and divers), Be Reef Safe focuses on educating and empowering consumers about lifestyle changes that positively impact our reefs and ocean.

Surfing, smart sun safety and ocean-friendly choices go hand-in-hand. While switching sunscreens alone won’t save our coral reefs, it will help improve coral’s resiliency in the face of larger issues such as global climate change.

Author’s note: Zinc oxide- and titanium dioxide-based sunscreens tend to be thicker than chemical sunscreens and may leave behind white residue on your skin (just embrace it). When surfing, my personal preference is to use a zinc-based stick on my face and a mineral-based lotion on the rest of my body (though I typically surf in a rashguard, wetsuit top, or spring suit).


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