Most Sunscreens Can Harm Coral Reefs. What Should Travelers Do?

Recent studies have led to a global push for more reef-safe sunscreens.

The coral reefs around the Turks & Caicos Islands are a major tourist attraction, and Mark Parrish is trying to make sure the visitors he takes there don’t kill them with cosmetics.

He co-owns Big Blue Unlimited, a tour operation that guides snorkeling, kayaking and other adventurous excursions around the islands. The company’s website states that, “Big Blue will ONLY ALLOW the use of 100 percent biodegradable sunscreen on all of our trips. Non-biodegradable sunscreen IS NOT TO BE USED on Big Blue trips.”

“We make it mandatory, which is easier said than done,” said Mr. Parrish. “The key is telling people well in advance, putting it on the website and saying this is our policy and giving them a chance to shop at home.”

After decades of learning that sunblock is vital to a healthy beach vacation, consumers may wonder what’s wrong with their Coppertone. But recent studies that link the active ingredients in protecting skin from damaging ultraviolet rays to coral bleaching has led to a global push for more reef-safe sunscreens.

Chemicals in sunscreen that come off while swimming or travel through sewage systems when washed off in the shower are “bigger than climate change,” in causing coral reef damage, according to Craig Downs, the executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory based in Clifford, Va., which has studied the effects of sunscreen on coral reefs.

In 2015, Mr. Downs led a team that reported that oxybenzone, a common chemical found in sunscreens, is toxic to the symbiotic algae that live within corals, which provides their color and performs other vital duties, and also stunts the growth of corals. A 2008 European study published by Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that sunscreen promotes viral infection in corals that can lead tobleaching. They estimated that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen is deposited in the world’s oceans each year.

Last year, lawmakers at the state and county levels in Hawaii unsuccessfully proposed legislation to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone. The Consumer Healthcare Products Association, a trade association representing makers of over-the-counter medicine, and the Personal Care Products Council, representing the cosmetics and personal care industries, oppose the ban, arguing that sunscreen saves lives by preventing cancer.

“The proposed sunscreen bans in Hawaii avoid the real causes of coral decline according to scientists from around the world: global warming, agricultural runoff, sewage and overfishing,” the groups noted in a joint statement.

While environmental advocates continue to push for legislation, the travel industry, both in Hawaii and beyond, has responded with grass-roots campaigns designed to educate travelers on how to protect themselves from sunburn without contributing chemicals to the reefs.

Aqua-Aston Hospitality, which manages over 40 resorts in the Hawaiian Islands, distributes information on oxybenzone and its role in coral bleaching as guests check in along with a sample of chemical-free sunscreen from Raw Elements considered “reef-safe.” It also stocks free sunscreen dispensers with the biodegradable lotion.

The campaign began last April at 16 island locations and is being expanded to all of the company’s resorts, including those in Florida, Lake Tahoe and Costa Rica this year. In March, the company will begin distributing complimentary kits including a bottle of the sunscreen to guests who book using the promo code ALIST.

“Everybody wants to do the right thing, they’re just not aware they might be contributing to coral bleaching,” said Theresa van Greunen, Aqua-Aston’s spokeswoman who oversees corporate social responsibility.

Outrigger Resorts in Hawaii also provides free samples of reef-safe sunscreen to guests. It has used All Good products, which rely on the mineral-based sunblock zinc oxide, in the past and plans to debut its own Ozone line of environmentally friendly sunscreen this year.

In Mexico, areas popular with snorkelers such as Xel-Há on the Rivera Maya and Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park in Cozumel ban the use of non-biodegradable sunscreen. At Xel-Há, visitors with unapproved sunscreen can swap their brands for samples of safe products and get their own back when they exit the park.

Resorts are helping spread the word. At the seven Solmar Hotels & Resorts in Los Cabos, guests may purchase biodegradable sunblock on-site and are advised in advance that it is the only kind permitted in area preserves such as Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

Screening sunscreen for environmental friendliness requires getting familiar with chemicals including oxybenzone, octinoxate and methyl paraben. Haereticus Environmental Lab publishes a list of chemicals to avoid. Mineral sunblocks including zinc oxide and titanium dioxide that are “non-nano” in size are considered safe. Formulations below 100 nanometers are considered nano and can be ingested by corals.

Researchers agree that sunscreen isn’t the only culprit in coral bleaching, pointing to rising sea temperatures caused by global warming among other threats. But it may be the one travelers have the most immediate and direct influence over.

“This is one impact that we can control,” said R. Scott Winters, the chief executive officer of the Coral Restoration Foundation, a nonprofit conservation organization based in Tavernier, Fla. “If we are to be successful in bringing coral reefs back to a healthy state, it is incredibly important that people visiting them choose sunscreens that do not contain oxybenzone. More important, choosing to cover up with UV protective clothing, rash guards, and hats can also reduce the amount of sunscreen needed.”

Sun protection clothing from lines including Patagonia, Coolibar and REI are rated with UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor, figures in the same way that sunscreens use SPF, Sun Protection Factor, numbers.

Clothing is considered as effective as sunscreen, said Dr. Henry W. Lim, the president of the American Academy of Dermatology. “The challenge is it doesn’t cover 100 percent of the body’s surface,” he said.

For reef specialists like Mr. Downs, less is more.

“For a woman in a bikini,” he said, “85 percent of her body will be covered in sunscreen. She can reduce that by 50 percent just by wearing sun shirt. That’s progress.”

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