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Sunscreen: The Silent Killer of Coral Reefs

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), over half a billion people depend on reefs for food, income, and protection. But the fact of the matter is, they are dying. While increasing temperatures is one of the leading causes, your sunscreen isn’t far behind.

Coral reef tourism has been dubbed the “poster child” of nature-based tourism and is estimated to rake in around US$36 billion each year. From the Maldives to Fiji and across the world to Belize—the well-being of more than 70 economies worldwide significantly depend on local reefs. 

However, our reefs are in desperate need of preservation. According to the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the longest and most widespread coral bleaching event was during 2014 to 2017. Due to coral reefs being a precious source of medicine, food, and livelihoods for hundreds of millions of people around the world (some estimates put the number at 1 billion in Asia alone!), this issue is particularly dire. 

Experts say that if coral reefs were to vanish, hunger, poverty, and political instability would result. Amongst other things, marine biodiversity is reliant on coral reefs, and their deaths would result in a complete collapse of the surrounding marine ecosystem

What is Coral Bleaching?

Source: Coral Reef Watch

Healthy coral has a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, a microscopic algae that lives in coral tissue and acts as the coral’s primary food source. This relationship is also what gives coral its vibrant colours. But it goes far deeper than that. According to the WWF, the zooxanthellae coexist with the coral in a cooperative environment where each helps the other survive. However, if the ocean temperature increases, for example, the coral becomes stressed and expels the algae.

Due to the coral losing its major food source, the colour begins to turn white, or “bleached”, making the coral more susceptible to disease. Although it is possible for coral to recover from a stressed state, it is highly unlikely, which ultimately leads to the coral’s death.

In terms of coral bleaching, climate change is the main factor. A warming globe results in a hotter ocean, and coral may drive away algae with a shift in water temperature as low as 2 degrees Fahrenheit. Other factors, such as incredibly low tides, pollution, or too much sunshine, can also cause coral to bleach.

Sunscreen; the silent killer 

It is estimated that 19% of the world’s coral reefs today have disappeared. If this trend continues, all coral reefs could be extinct within the next 100 years. Although environmental stress and the increase in ocean water temperature is the main reasoning behind this rapid decline, human activities have been found to be a contributing factor. Through ways such as pollution, coastal development, heavy tourism, and overfishing.

Approximately 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen are thought to reach waterways annually via wastewater runoff and sunscreen application worldwide. Significant amounts of sunscreen can build up in the water in shallow places that are popular with swimmers. Evidence now suggests it could be detrimental to marine life. 

Recent years have seen an increase in the amount of sunscreen molecules in well-known swimming and diving spots, which are frequently close to coral reefs.  

According to the Smithsonian Institute, in 2008, the first study that suggested sunscreen promotes coral bleaching was published. Corals were removed from their natural habitat and placed in seawater tanks, where they were exposed to various sunscreen products. This original study, often known as a toxicity study, had the straightforward goal of determining whether sunscreen at high dosages caused corals to bleach. The corals that were tested were all bleached.

Octinoxate and Oxybenzone are two heavily toxic chemicals found in more than 3,500 of the world’s most popular sun protecting products. Including, Banana Boat, Coppertone, and Hawaiian Tropic. 

To put this into perspective… Just one drop of oxybenzone has the ability to create a toxic effect on six and a half Olympic sized swimming pools. Yet, it is estimated that up to 14,000 tonnes of excess sunscreen is washed off into coral reef environments each year. Not to mention that these chemicals have been found to induce feminisation in male fish, cause neurological behavioural changes in marine animals, and increase reproductive diseases in various sea mammals and creatures.

Conscious Sunscreens that won’t kill the reefs

How cruelly ironic that a product intended to protect our skin from sun damage causes detrimental effects on our coral reefs and marine life with each application. Choosing an all-natural, reef-safe sunscreen is one of the #LittleGreenSteps that you can take to #LiveMoreConsciously and preserve the exotic beauty of sea life on your next beachside getaway!

Thinksport Mineral Sunscreen

Look no further for your ultimate reef-safe water sport sunscreen! This formula, backed by both vegans and dermatologists, is gentle on sensitive skin. Its impressive 80-minute water resistance means it’s perfect for busy adults and families with kids, seamlessly fitting into their daily summer routines.

Kokua Sun Care Sunscreen

Look no further than its name for a clue to its purpose! Crafted with outdoor adventures in mind, Kokua’s sunscreen boasts a plant-powered formula and an impressive 80-minute water resistance. Infused with Hawaiian-sourced ingredients like spirulina, kukui nut oil, macadamia nut oil, noni, and plumeria, it not only protects but also supports local agriculture. Plus, it meets the stringent sunscreen bans of destinations like Palau, Maui, and the Big Island, ensuring guilt-free fun in the sun.

Maui Surfer Honey All Natural Sunscreen Lotion SPF 30 Reef Safe

In 2021, Hawaii took a firm stance by banning non-reef-safe sunscreens, but Maui Naturals has been ahead of the game since 2009 with its Maui Surfer Honey sunscreen. Crafted in Hawaii, this reef-friendly formula boasts a blend of natural goodness, including aloe vera, jojoba oil, and honey, while steering clear of harmful chemicals like oxybenzone, petrochemicals, and nanoparticles. Even after a sweaty workout, this sunscreen stays put, setting in seamlessly for all your outdoor adventures.

Regrettably, we’ve linked it to the Amazon website since it’s the sole online platform where you can purchase it, excluding Hawaii-based options.