By Calvin Abbott
With summer now in full swing many people are preparing for or experiencing the quintessential summer experiences we dream about all winter. With people doing all sorts of activities in the bright summer sun, the plethora of opportunities for summer fun have very few common factors. But one step before almost all summer activities is the slathering on of copious amounts of sunscreen. Sunscreen is a necessity, the protective barrier between our skin and the harsh UV rays produced by the sun. But not all sunscreen is made the same, and not all sunscreen is as harmless as it seems.
The global extinction of coral has garnered a lot of attention over recent years, as it is arguably the oceans largest and most important ecosystem. It’s definitely the magnificent ocean experience with the lowest barrier to entry, you just have to get somewhere where they have one, and own a swimsuit. But recent studies show that most common sunscreens are extremely harmful to coral reefs, both contributing to bleaching and by damaging them on the genetic level. We are living in a world where coral is rapidly disappearing, already 40% of the great barrier reef, 75% of Carribean coral reefs, and 99% of Florida’s coral reefs are dead or gone. Sunscreen is a major factor in this disappearance, along with ocean acidification, pollution, and climate change. Coral accounts for a massive part of the world’s biodiversity, and human economy, as well as the oxygen in the air we breathe. Luckily, it is fairly easy to do your part on this issue! All you need to do is buy the right kind of sunscreen.
While the list of damaging ingredients in sunblock is long, it really boils down to 2 things to remember. That there are 2 kinds of sunscreen fundamentally, mineral and chemical. Mineral sunscreens use tiny crystals (usually zinc oxide and titanium dioxide), when these crystals are spread across the skin the reflect the UV rays. Chemical sunscreens aren’t “on” your skin but rather absorbed by it, and the compounds within it absorbs the UV rays and dissipate them as heat. Chemical sunscreens, once washed off your skin, will always eventually make it to the ocean where they harm coral reefs. There is also a significant body of evidence that these chemical sunscreen compounds make it farther into your body then the skin (such as blood, breast milk, etc.). However no studies have been able to significantly link this to any medical concerns in humans to date.
Mineral sunscreens on the other hand are healthy for the coral reef, and better for you. Because they just sit on top of your skin, like microscopic crystal armor, when you get in the shower and wash them off with soap there is no residue left in your body. So next time you go to stock up on sunscreen, please look for bottles labelled reef-safe. When in doubt check the ingredients, if it has more active ingredients then zinc oxide and titanium dioxide keep looking. And when applying mineral sunscreen remember its not exactly the same as chemical, it’s not a lotion. Most reef safe sunblock companies recommend making a small pea sized ball in your palm, spreading it on your hands, then blotting it on your skin like using a make-up sponge. Keep in mind you also don’t need to apply as much as with chemical sunscreen, one small pea should cover your whole face and neck, or an arm, for instance. Thanks for reading, and together, let’s work to make this world a better place for ourselves and those who will follow us.