Hawaii BeachHawaii and the Caribbean island of Bonaire recently passed a law banning the use of sunscreen containing chemicals that are harmful to coral reefs. So why the fuss over something that people are using on their skin to protect it from the damaging effects of the sun?

It has actually been known for some time that some of the chemicals used in chemical based sunscreens can damage the marine environment. In the last few years sales of natural sunscreens and reef friendly sunscreens have started to climb rapidly, meaning that people are cottoning on to the damage being done and that they can do something about it. It is good to see it being taken to heart on a larger scale too.

The marine environment and in particular coral reefs are really fragile and it does not take a lot to disrupt their balance.  Scientists have estimated that somewhere in the region of 25 to 60 million bottles worth of sunscreen washes off swimmers every year. There only needs to be around 62 parts per trillion to completely bleach coral.

But it doesn’t have to cause a problem. As long as he sunscreen is biodegradable and does not contain any chemicals that are going to harm the marine environment.

The four main culprits seem to be

  •  - Oxybenzone (aka Benzophenone-3 or BP-3) - This disrupts coral reproduction, causes coral bleaching and damages coral DNA... not much then! 
  • - Butyleparaben - Used as a preservative it has been shown to cause coral bleaching
  • - 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC) (thats a mouthful!) - Another one guilty of coral bleaching
  • - Octinoxate (Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate) - Coral belaching.


But it is not just coral reefs they can also harm fish and have been found to be not all that great for people either. Chemical sunscreens work by sinking into your skin (which is why you need to wait 15-20 mins after application before going out into the sun). This results in a certain amount of it entering our bodies and Oxybenzone has been found in breast milk, blood and urine. Ingredients like Oxybenzone are suspected to cause issues with reproductive and thyroid hormones.

And just in case you are thinking that its ok, because you only ever dip your toes into waters closer to home...The UK has coral reefs too. They are not as famous but they are around 8000 years old and just as teeming with life. 

So what is the answer? Firstly look for a sunscreen that is reef friendly. If you can, go one step better and look for a physical sunscreen. These are different to chemical sunscreens because they do not sink into the skin but rather form their protective layer on top of the skin. These sunscreens are usually going to rely on the ingredients

  • - Zinc oxide and
  • - Titanium dioxide

They can also be known as mineral sunscreens, natural sunscreens or inorganic sunscreens. The downside is that because Coral Reefthey sit on top of the skin, they can leave you looking a little pale. But there has been great improvements in the formulations over the last few years and you can find them now that are pretty invisible. You need to make sure that the Zinc Oxide and Titanium dioxide are Non-nano though as the nano versions can also case problems to the marine environment.

So in short,

  • - Do not avoid sunscreens, they protect your skin.
  • - Look for reef friendly sunscreens
  • - Look for mineral/natural sunscreens where possible
  • - Make sure they are non-nano. 
  • - Wear clothing that will help to protect your skin from sun exposure.