Updated: Aug 12, 2022
Using reef safe sunscreen is one of the few things you can do to make a small difference is helping our oceans. Chemicals in certain sunscreens can cause stress on corals which leads to the loss of healthy corals and therefore coral reef ecosystems. Are you sure what you’re using is actually reef safe sunscreen? You might surprised that sometimes labels may not tell the whole story.
The Importance of Coral Reefs
Coral reefs are extremely important to both the health of the ocean and the planet. Reefs provide important habitat structure for an abundance of species, protection from storms and waves to coastal areas, resources for medical advancement, and economic value. It is vital we protect these valuable ecosystems.
Biodiversity & Habitat
Although coral reefs only cover approximately 1% of the earth surface (2% of the ocean floor), they are responsible for supporting almost a quarter of all ocean life. (Smithsonian, 2018). Reefs are extremely diverse ecosystems that provide both habitat, food, and nurseries for a huge variety of wildlife.
Coral Reefs are responsible for protecting coastlines from wave energy that may cause erosion and damage. Without the protection provided by reefs cities, communities, and beaches/islands would be destroyed from powerful ocean energy created by storm systems. Reefs protect the people, but also the economies of areas that would otherwise spend billions in storm damage repair every year.
Chemical compounds isolated from coral reefs for human use in medicine are extremely valuable. More than half of new drugs being researched for cancer treatment are focused on resources from marine organisms. (Coral Reef Alliance, 2021). Scientists have already found compounds from corals useful in developing medicines to treat ulcers, leukemia, cardiovascular diseases, lymphoma, skin cancer and inflammation.
Economic Value From Tourism
Ecotourism is becoming increasingly popular and the economic value of coral reef based tourism is insurmountable. Coral reefs not only have indirect economic effects from other benefits provided by reefs, ecotourism has been given huge monetary values. For example, in 2002 direct economic benefits from coral reefs were valued at $360 million a year. (Cesar and van Beukering, 2004).
Why Do We Want Our Sunscreen to Be Reef Safe?
Certain sunscreen chemicals can cause bleaching events in corals where they dispel their zooxanthellae. Without the zooxanthellae they are unable to photosynthesize and therefore feed themselves. Coral bleaching is just a first step in the process of the loss of coral reefs. Without corals all of the above benefits disappear. By using actual reef safe sunscreen you can help in reducing stress on coral reefs.
Reef safe sunscreen is defined as sunscreens that do not include certain UVB blocking chemicals which are known to cause coral bleaching events. The only two chemicals in sunscreen that are actually reef safe are Titanium dioxide and Zinc oxide.
Mislabeling of “Reef Safe”
Unfortunately, companies and legislation have defined reef safe by chemical, not by if the sunscreen itself is actually reef safe. According to most guidelines a product can be labeled as “reef safe” if it excludes the chemical Oxybenzone or Octinoxate. However, these chemicals are not the only ones that can cause stress on corals.
Be sure to check your sunscreen products. You want to use sunscreens which only include either Zinc oxide or Titanium dioxide. Anything else is technically not actually reef safe.
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