No matter the type of skin, we all need protection against harmful rays that can damage our skin or cause forms of cancer. Sunscreen is made of carbon-containing molecules absorb light or reflect it away from the skin, but a problem is when those same ingredients have been reported as harmful to the environment, particularly coral reefs. As a result, some manufacturers have started marketing “reef safe“ sunscreens, but it’s probably not worth worrying about.
While there are some precautions to keep in mind in a sunscreen, damage to coral reefs shouldn’t be high on the list. Here’s what we know about the environmental effects of sunscreen and what “safe” sunscreen should be.
Don’t change your sunscreen to save the coral reef
Sunscreen protects our skin from two types of harmful sun rays: UVB and UVA rays. UVB rays are what make the skin red and burn, while UVA rays are known to cause skin cancers like melanoma. There are also two forms of sunscreen: physical and chemical. Skin cancer Foundation gives a clear definition of the two.
Physical (mineral) The ingredients in sunscreen (including the minerals titanium dioxide and zinc oxide) block and scatter the rays before they penetrate the skin.
Chemical Ingredients in sunscreens (such as avobenzone and octisalate) absorb UV rays before they can damage your skin.
in a 2016 study, the chemical form of sunscreen was found to be harmful to coral reefs and adds to the problem of “coral bleaching, “But a most recent study They found no “measurable levels” of the harmful chemical on the surface of seawater or in the coral itself. Chemistry PhD and Science Content Creator Dr. Michelle Wong is an expert on the subject, and alleviates any concerns about the level of destruction sunscreen is causing on coral reefs.
“It’s always possible that sunscreen has an effect on coral reefs, but the evidence so far suggests that sunscreen doesn’t have a huge impact,” explains Wong. “The ocean is huge, so any sunscreen that gets into it wears off very quickly.”
The real problem lies in the mass production of things like plastics, over agriculture and the pollutants that contribute to climate change. Wong notes that most companies that include natural ingredients “require a lot of energy to produce.” When you think you are solving one problem, you are creating another.
Why you should use physical sunscreen
Sunscreen does not travel through the water in sufficient amounts to contribute to coral reef bleaching or damage. However, if you find yourself swimming just above a coral reef on your next diving excursion, Dr. Wong recommends that “it is best to avoid the ingredients that have had the greatest impact in laboratory studies, namely oxybenzone and octinoxate “.
If you want to protect yourself and do a little bit for the environment, choose a physical sunscreen. Physical sunscreens use the chemicals titanium dioxide or zinc oxide to create a barrier between the skin and UVA or UVB rays; they are not exactly “natural”, but they are not known to cause coral reef bleaching.
“Many of the sunscreens that are marketed as ‘reef safe’ have poor textures and cause a white tint to the skin, which means that people are less likely to use them and end up expiring on the shelf, which is not it’s good for the environment, ”says Dr. Wong. This doesn’t mean you’re throwing out all your sunscreens and running out of buying new tubes, of course, but the next time you’re out of sunscreen, consider avoiding oxybenzone and octinoxate.