What to look out for?
If you look at the ingredients list on the back of your sunscreen, you want to avoid a few highly toxic ingredients to wildlife.
These include Petrolatum, Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, and Titanium Dioxide*. The first item is deadly to aquatic life, while the latter all contribute to Coral Bleaching in some way.
Several ingredients commonly found in sunscreen are under review for their toxicity to humans. Not only are some of these common sunscreens dangerous to reefs, they are also dangerous to humans.
What is the correct sunscreen to use?
Currently the most common sunscreen ingredient considered generally safe is Zinc Oxide*. However this is never the only ingredient in sunscreen. Many of the Zinc Oxide sunscreens contain other ingredients that can be harmful to both you and the environment.
While there is no clear winner at this time for sun lotion, almost every research group has the same recommendation. The best sun protection is sun protective clothing. There are plenty of sun protective specific clothing options out there, but even standard cotton clothing has been shown to provide enough protection.
Sun protective clothing is a lot more common these days. In coral exploration activities like snorkeling and scuba diving, you should always use sun protective clothing instead of lotions.
*Titanium Oxide can be safe if it is manufactured at a certain particle size. It is too hard for consumers to identify these products in this way so I have not included it at this time.
What about spray lotions?
There is a lot of concern over spray sun lotion and many research groups have acknowledged the health risks with pump and pressurized lotion sprays. These sprays can make the toxic effect of certain ingredients much worse because you breath in the sprays. People like to think they can just avoid breathing in the lotion, but studies show this can not be avoided.
What is the cheapest reef safe sunscreen?
I still stand behind using sun protective clothing, using clothing will at least reduce the amount of sunscreen needed. As I mentioned before there is no “perfect” sun lotion at this point, but there are several that are waaaay better than the rest. Of these there are only a few that are low cost.
Here is a short list of some of the easier to find, low cost, best scoring sunscreens:
Bare Republic Mineral – Cheapest option, but people complain it leaves you looking like a ghost*
Coppertone Pure & Simple – A best seller and second cheapest option. Easiest to find in stores.
Badger Tinted Mineral Sunscreen – Mixed reviews but a popular brand for sustainable products.
Hello Bello – Vegan Friendly
Aveeno Positively Mineral Sensitive – A popular brand.
Thinksport Safe – Highly rated but leaves you like a ghost*
Neutrogena Sheer Zinc – A very popular brand. East to find.
*All Zinc products will leave you looking pale, but these were noted as especially strong.
Does it matter if I am not near the ocean?
A big question that I struggled to find an answer to was, “ are non reef safe sunscreens OK to use away from reefs?” The answer is No. You should still use reef safe sun lotions. First, many of the ingredients not safe for reefs and aquatic life are also of concern to humans. Second these ingredients can still make their way to major water bodies.
Advanced wastewater treatment techniques may filter out most of these toxic chemicals, but there have been no conclusive studies to confirm this claim yet. There are still many wastewater facilities not using more advanced techniques like reverse osmosis. In these cases, we know many pharmaceutical and other chemicals are getting leached out into the environment.
Will my efforts help save the world?
Can your efforts make a difference is a very tough question to answer. The volume of ecology damaging greenhouse gases and oil spillage is measured in the billions and even trillions of cubic feet and tons.
Tonnage of sunscreen leaching into the oceans is estimated to be in the 5 figure range. While the volume of sunscreen leaching is far less than these other ecological threats, the toxicity of sunscreen is still very high.
Several regions banning tourism to reefs has allowed the reefs to begin regeneration. This would seem to prove eliminating the sunscreen and human activity allows for regeneration despite other ecological threats.
While major threats continue to jeopardize the environment as a whole, the sunscreen issue is one we actively bring directly to the reefs we love to explore. Eliminating the sunscreen threat would at least help to conserve the areas we visit most. So yes, it does matter.
Participating in the practice of environmentally conscious behavior also helps to bring awareness to all environmental conservation. That too should be reason enough.
Is the sunscreen issue eclipsed by larger issues (CO2 / oil spillage?)
Every year 500 million gallons of used petroleum lubricating oil enters the world’s oceans through routine ship maintenance and improper disposal of used oils.
The U.S. Coast Guard estimates that sewage treatment plants discharge twice as much oil into coastal waters as do tanker accidents.
Some of the resources I used to build this article. Feel free to do your own research.