If it’s forests that allow the land-dwelling world to breathe, then coral reefs are best understood as the lungs of the sea. Much like the rainforest floor, corals play host to such a wildly diverse selection of animal life that scientists continue to discover new reef-dwelling species at an incredible rate. These aquatic landscapes - bursting with colour and teeming with marine animals - are as close as earth can offer to a visual representation of the word ‘life’.
Coral reefs really are as alive as any place on earth. The ecological viability of reefs depends upon a partnership between the coral itself and the algae which live within it. These two organisms exist symbiotically, with the coral offering protection and the algae offering sustenance; the life of one species protects the life of another.
But for every symbiote, nature has also produced a parasite. Coral reefs are almost universally afflicted by one parasitic species: human beings. Mankind feeds off of the life offered by coral reefs, receiving not nutritional but rather emotional sustenance. By artificially inserting ourselves into these marine ecosystems - swimming into them, touching them, removing pieces of them - we are actively contributing to the deterioration of coral reefs.
Among the most serious threats facing the world’s coral reefs is something which initially seems trivial: sun screen. For many of us, applying sun cream is simply part of our holiday routine: it requires no more thought than brushing our teeth.
It’s not that simple, though. Wearing sun cream allows very small amounts of chemicals - known as nanoparticles - to seep into the water and be absorbed by the coral reefs.* These tiny chemical particles disrupt the reproductive cycles of corals, bleach them, and damage their DNA. In the simplest possible terms, sunscreen to a coral reef is like salt to a slug. And whilst it’s tempting to dismiss the impact of any one individual on a given reef, the problem is cumulative: experts have estimated that as much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen washes into our oceans every year.
This isn’t the only worrying statistic: over 25% of coral reefs have already disappeared, with scientists predicting a 70 to 90% further reduction over the next 20 years. While sunscreen is far from the only issue affecting the health of coral reefs, it’s an area which each one of us can improve with simple changes to our daily lives. There are a number of ways in which we can decrease our toxicity:
1. Use reef-safe sunscreen. This is more difficult than it looks. A lack of government oversight has meant that in many countries - most notably the US - the term ‘reef safe’ is not properly regulated, and can be found even on products which do cause damage to corals. Here are a few genuinely safe products for you to try:
- Manda Organic SPF 50 Sun Paste
- Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian SPF 50 Natural Zinc Sunscreen
- Thinksport SPF 50 Sunscreen
- Hello Bello Sunscreen Lotion
If you find yourself in need of more information on how to find reef safe products, check out
Haereticus Environmental Lab, who publish an annual list of reef safe sunscreens.
Lonely Planet, who provide a list of non-toxic products
2. Lobby for protective legislation. On January 1 2021, Hawaii banned the sale of all sunscreens containing either octinoxate or oxybenzone (two of the chemicals which are most toxic to coral). If adopted on a larger scale, legislation like this could be instrumental in ensuring the health of our coral reefs.
3. Stop using spray-on sun protection. It’s easy to miss your skin with this kind of product, which means more sun cream than necessary ends up in the ocean!
4. Wear sun protective clothing. This is a great alternative to sunscreen, and can be used again and again.
5. Be careful at home, not just at the beach! Sunscreen can wash through our drains and into the ocean - so there’s no safe place to wear unsafe sunscreen!
6. Do your own research. Genuinely reef safe sun lotions have a few shared characteristics. They are ‘non-nano’, meaning they don’t contain nano-particles; they are free from oxybenzone and octinoxate, and they are low in titanium dioxide and mineral oil (both of which are toxic to marine life).
It’s impossible to separate the health of our oceans from the health of humanity; pumping a toxic substance into the sea is almost as self-destructive as applying it to our own bodies. It’s time we say no to unsafe sun protection!