How to Pick a Sunscreen That’s Safe for Coral Reefs and Aquatic Life

Hopefully, before you head to the beach, you’ve already looked for some safe sunscreens for your body. But if you’re not reading labels, and if you don’t understand what the ingredients on those labels are, studies show the product you’re lathering on your skin could actually pose a grave threat to the ocean environment. These sunscreens are especially not safe for coral reefs.

The world’s most popular reefs are at risk because of a common chemical found in all types of sunscreen: Oxybenzone. [1]

Oxybenzon – Why Sunscreen is NOT Safe for Coral Reefs, Aquatic Life

According to a study published in 2015, oxybenzone poisons coral by contributing to bleaching, has a similar effect on DNA to gasoline, and causes young corals to become fatally deformed because the chemical disrupts reproduction and growth.

Craig Downs, one of the study’s authors, explained:

“It causes weird deformities in soft tissue and also causes the coral larvae to encase itself in its own skeleton, in its own coffin.”

A dose of oxybenzone the size of a drop in 6.5 Olympic swimming pools is enough to damage coral reefs.

Downs said:

“Oxybenzone can cause an adverse effect in coral at 62 parts per trillion, that is equivalent to one drop of water in six and a half Olympic size swimming pools, so you don’t need a lot to cause a lot of damage.” [2]

In fact, scientists have discovered that many beaches popular with tourists have dead and sterile reefs, compared to beaches with little human traffic, which are healthy. [1]

It is believed that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen is deposited on coral reefs each year. [2]

Hawaii is contemplating banning oxybenzone-containing sunscreens on the islands for this reason. Sunscreen isn’t safe for coral reefs!

Other sea life is imperiled by oxybenzone, as well. Downs’ team found the chemical has toxic effects on fish larvae and embryos. [1]

How to Ensure You’re Buying Sunscreen Safe for Coral Reefs

Some sunscreen manufacturers have started producing and marketing sunscreens as “reef friendly,” but there’s no way to know for sure what you’re getting. Scientists warn that, like the “natural” and “healthy” labels on food, there is little to no regulation over such claims.

Read: Eco Artists Build Interactive Dive Site That Doubles as Artificial Coral Reef

So here are a few tips for picking a sunscreen that is, indeed, reef-friendly.

Read Labels

Look for sunscreens containing the “Protect Land + Sea” Certification Seal. This means the product has been laboratory-tested using analytical-forensic techniques to verify that it is free of the following chemicals:

  • 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 [3]

While sunscreens containing ONLY zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are considered reef-friendly, when these ingredients are uncoated and nano-size (less than 35 nanometers in diameter), they can enter the cells of invertebrates and cause oxidative stress in sunlight. Downs explains that “This blows up the cells so they die.” [4] [5]

Buy Sunscreens with the Simplest Formulas

According to Downs, even oils added to sunscreens, such as eucalyptus and lavender, can harm invertebrates. Industrial insecticides can contaminate beeswax, that, when emulsified in beauty products, can release these chemicals on your skin and in the water. This is why it’s so important to buy organic sunscreen.

Don’t Buy Aerosols

Aerosol sunscreens are worse for reefs than other types because it travels and leaves residue in the sand. Waves wash the sand and the residual ocean spray into the oceans. [2]

When researchers sprayed a small piece of coral from Trunk Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands with one of the top aerosol brands, the coral lost all its algae, and turned white and bleached within 96 hours.

John Burns, PhD and coral biologist, who has worked on coral health and disease for nearly a decade, said:

“They actually have a basic immune system that is a lot like humans, they react when they are being stressed out. When they’re white, their stressed, it’s a lot like us, when we’re sick, we’re pale and we’re not as healthy, and that’s what’s happening to the coral.”

Now that we know that most sunscreens aren’t safe for coral reefs or ourselves, let’s make it a goal to explore other, safer options for protection this summer.


[1] The Guardian


[3] Haereticus Environmental Laboratory

[4] The Inertia

[5] Vogue

National Park Service

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Eco Artists Build Interactive Dive Site that Doubles as Artificial Coral Reef

A group of artists, environmentalists, entrepreneurs, and locals gathered in mid-April along the Virgin Gorda in the British Virgin Islands to witness an exciting moment: The sinking of the Kodiak Queen, 1 of 5 boats that survived Pearl Harbor. But this wasn’t for entertainment purposes. The ship had been transformed by the group months before into both a tourist attraction, and a way of drawing attention and conservation efforts to the region’s dying coral reef populations. [1]

Source: Inhabitat

The volunteers gave the boat a thorough cleaning and transformed its chambers into a sort-of interactive art piece, including a hollow rebar and mesh kraken with 80-foot tentacles that extend along the length of the deck. Once the Kodiak Queen reached the ocean floor, it would become the Project YOKO BVI Art Reef, an interactive dive site.

The project is now the world’s largest underwater art installation.

There was a tense moment on the shore, when the audience thought the boat might tip over, compromising much of the artists’ work. Fortunately, the Kodiak Queen remained upright for her journey, drawing cheers from the crowd.

Aydika James, the art director at Secret Samurai Productions, a collective of artists working toward solving real-world problems through art, said:

“Watching this ship, which has so much history and so many hours put into it, go down was a joyful thing. It felt like a beginning.”

James is also a member of Maverick1000, a group of entrepreneurs who meet annually on Sir Richard Branson’s private Necker Island in the British Virgin Islands.

Read: Great Barrier Reef in Bad Shape, but not Dead yet

In addition to being a symbol of artistic expression and entertainment for divers, Project YOKO also serves as a new artificial reef that provides a foundation for corals and sponges to grow upon, that will also house fish, such as the threatened Goliath groupers. [2]

A Goliath grouper swims with other fish

BVI Art Reef’s goal is to “mobilize a network of researchers, philanthropists, and artists to solve marine health problems through the Power of Play.”

The downed ship is furbished with “an emerging technology called environmental DNA, or eDNA, to collect data on the entire marine ecosystem around the vessel.”

Now that the Kodiak Queen rests at the bottom of the ocean, the project’s organizers have started working with local BVI dive operators to ensure divers submit a $10 donation that will go to marine health research and children’s swim education.


[1] Fast Company

[2] Collective Evolution

Images Source:


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