More About Coral-Safe Sunscreens

  • Chemicals in sunscreen make corals more susceptible to bleaching.

By Alan Throop

In the July newsletter, we noted that Hawaii banned the use of sunscreen with chemicals that can damage Coral Reefs. As a follow-up, I’ve listed here some information and links that discuss what chemicals are pollutants.

From the Oceanic Society:

Oceanic Society logoConcern about the impact of sunscreen on coral reefs has been growing since 2008 when the first study was published showing a direct link between coral mortality and ingredients found in sunscreens, especially in areas with high levels of tourism. The scale of the problem is significant. Scientists estimate that between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen—the equivalent of 25 to 60 million bottles—wash off of snorkelers and swimmers into coral reef environments each year. At the same time, ocean and coastal tourism is growing, and it is estimated that more than a billion people worldwide will be visiting oceans for recreation and tourism by 2020.

Since that initial study, many more studies have followed and have identified two chemicals found in sunscreens that cause direct harm to corals: oxybenzone and octinoxate. Beyond sunscreen, these ingredients are found in lipsticks, moisturizers, and other cosmetics, and they are readily absorbed into the blood (and subsequently found in human urine). All products containing these chemicals, not just sunscreens, should be avoided when you are near marine environments. In fact, some experts believe that the wash-off of these chemicals during showering and swimming plays a bigger role than climate change in damaging coral reefs. While oxybenzone and octinoxate are the most well-studied culprits, new research is finding that other chemicals in sunscreens may also be harmful to coral reefs, in particular octocrylene, 4MBC, and butylparaben. Here is a vetted list of all of the known pollutants (NOTE: see the summary below) that may be in your sunscreens and other skin/hair care products that should be avoided.

Look for the Protect Land & Sea Certification:

Protect Land + Sea Certified logoProducts labeled with the “Protect Land + Sea” Certification Seal mean that the product has been laboratory tested using analytical forensic techniques to verify that the product is free of the chemicals that are on the “HEL LIST.” The HEL LIST is a list of chemicals that are known pollutants in many different environments (freshwater streams, river, beaches, and ocean systems) or wildlife (e.g., corals, fish, birds, marine mammals, sea turtles). All of them pose a threat to Ecosystem Health. Many of the chemicals on the HEL LIST are intentionally included into the formulation of a product, and are either listed or not.listed in the ingredient.labeling of the product. They may also contaminate a product by being added to an ingredient before the product manufacturer obtains the ingredient (e.g., parabens used as preservatives in glycerol, camphors in fragrances). No matter how the chemicals on the HEL LIST can get into a product, CERTIFIED products DO NOT CONTAIN any chemical on the HEL LIST.

The HEL LIST includes:

  • Any form of microplastic sphere or beads.
  • Any nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Octocrylene
  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Methyl Paraben
  • Ethyl Paraben
  • Propyl Paraben
  • Butyl Paraben
  • Benzyl Paraben
  • Triclosan