Is your sunscreen killing coral? The importance of reef-safe sunscreen

The day is finally here: travel restrictions to Hawaii have begun to lift. Now, Hawaii is foregoing a two week quarantine for visitors who provide negative test results from within 72 hours of their trip. On October 15, the first day of the new travel restrictions, Hawaii welcomed 8,000 visitors. Given this year, who wouldn’t want to get away to a tropical island? But as you excitedly begin to pack for your trip, don’t forget to check that you are bringing reef-safe sunscreen. 

Hawaii is home to two of the greatest diversity ecosystems: tropical rainforests and coral reefs. Coral reefs only make up 2% of the world’s oceans, yet are nurseries for 25% of all species of marine life. Scientists believe that there are billions of undiscovered species living in the reefs.

The high level of biodiversity in the reefs is believed to hold the key to discovering new medicines. Coral reef life has developed chemical means of self defence. These compounds are vital in the development of new drugs. This research has already led to the development of new medicines to treat cancer, arthritis, human bacterial infections, Alzheimer’s disease, heart disease, viruses, and other diseases.

Outside of medicinal and ecological importance, coral reefs are integral to economic stability. Coral reefs support healthy fisheries as well as tourism and recreation-based industries. About half of all federally-funded fisheries depend on the reefs for a portion of their life cycles. According to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the commercial value of U.S. fisheries from coral reefs values over $100 million.

Local economies depend on coral reefs to bring in tourists and sell services, products, and hospitality. Think of all the scuba diving trips, paddling, fishing trips, hotels, restaurants, souvenir shops… the list goes on.

Without their symbiotic algae, corals turn white. Photo from The Australian Institute of Marine Science.

The coral reefs are in terrible danger. Scientists predict that in 30 to 50 years, most of the coral reefs will be gone. Global warming and ocean acidification has led to wide-spread coral bleaching. When corals are under extreme stress, they turn white as they expel the algae (zooxanthellae) that live in their tissues. The coral is not dead at this point, but in a severe, delicate state. The zooxanthellae living with the coral provide the coral with vital nutrients through photosynthesis. Without these nutrients, the coral can starve to death and is more susceptible to disease. 

Okay, I can hear you saying. I get it. The coral reefs are really important and are indange. What does that have to do with the type of sunscreen I use?

While coral reefs are in danger from global warming and habitat destruction from ocean floor trawling, they can also be poisoned by our sunscreens.

Sunscreens use a number of active ingredients, including oxybenzone or BP-3. When we swim, our sunscreen washes off into the water and begins to interact with the local ecosystem.

Green Algae: Can impair growth and photosynthesis.

Coral: Accumulates in tissues. Induces coral bleaching. Causes permanent DNA damage, impacting growth and reproduction. Can be fatal.

Mussels: Can induce defects in young.

Sea Urchins: Damages immune and reproductive systems and deforms young. 

Fish: Decreases fertility and reproduction, and induces female characteristics in male fish.

Dolphins: Can accumulate in tissue and be transferred to young.

Infographic from NOAA

BP-3 is toxic in small quantities, but tourism introduces the chemical into the marine ecosystem in large quantities. ABC News reported that, “in many cases, local infrastructure is strained, waste treatment is mismanaged and as a result, natural habitats are destroyed. In tropical areas such as Kahalu’u Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii, the nearly 400,000 visitors and beachgoers per year has resulted in a steady stream of chemical pollutants commonly found in sunscreens and lotions being introduced to local waters.” 

Want to make a difference? Switch to reef-safe sunscreen with natural ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium oxide. Most packaging will call out reef-safe products. 

Kahalu’u Bay on the Big Island of Hawaii. Photo from Wikipedia.

Let’s look at Kahalu’u Bay again. The Kohala Center launched a “Reef-Safe Friendly Protection” campaign. Tens of thousands of visitors took the campaign to heart and made the switch. Between April, 2018 and November, 2019, oxybenzone levels dropped by 93%. That is a huge improvement! According to Cindi Punihaole, director of The Kohala Center’s Kahalu‘u Bay Education Center, “What these results show is that community stewardship works. We are able to have meaningful conversations with hundreds of visitors every day to let them know about the damaging effects chemical sunscreens and physical contact with corals can have on our vulnerable reefs… A significant majority of our guests are unaware and want to do the right thing, they just need to be shown how.”

You can make a difference, too. As you prepare for your next ocean excursion or an afternoon of riparian entertainment, grab a bottle of reef-safe sunscreen. The coral reefs will thank you.

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