When you swim with sunscreen on, synthetic ingredients like oxybenzone and octinate seep into the water, where they’re absorbed by corals. The problem is that these ingredients are synthetic organic molecules, like those used to make plastics, that can disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles, ultimately leading to bleaching. Even if you’re not swimming, aerosol sunscreens can end up on the sand, where it’s washed into the ocean and your daily sunscreen can wash down the drain when you shower.
With 85% of Australians living within 50 kilometers of the coastline and Australia containing the world’s largest coral reef, the Great Barrier Reef, it’s an issue that needs addressing. The concern is so serious that Hawaii and marine eco-parks in Mexico are now banning the sale and distribution of sunscreens with those chemicals. The World Economic Forum has even put the issue of sunscreen pollution on its Global Agenda.
A coral reef is a living ecosystem, which protects coastlines and provides habitats for diverse marine life. The coral reef is not only essential to marine life but also provides healthy environments for humans, directly sustaining half a billion people globally. The Great Barrier Reef alone provides over $1 billion per year from tourism. Coral reefs are some of the most diverse and valuable ecosystems on earth – and they need to be protected.
While we’re waiting for more research on the matter and if it will lead to policy change, it’s best to err on the side of caution. Foregoing sun protection altogether to help coral reefs is not an option, so choosing a reef-friendly sunscreen is the next best thing.