Biodegradable Sunscreen Is A Must Have For Water-Lovers And Reef-Lovers Alike

by Nicola Temple on April 23, 2012

Having lived for a few years in Australia, I know all too well the importance of sunscreen. Having also spent a lot of time diving on coral reefs, I also know the importance of using a biodegradable sunscreen.

Millions of sunscreen-slathered divers and snorkelers jump into the ocean each year to enjoy the splendor of our reefs. However, tour boats are leaving behind an oil slick…one with an SPF!

Research in the last five years has indicated that sunscreen can be very damaging to coral reefs. Exposure to some of the common chemical compounds in sunscreen products is causing bleaching of the corals.

A chemical bombardment on our corals

Forty per cent of coral reefs around the world have been lost or severely degraded. Overfishing, physical damage, ocean acidification, rise in sea temperature, and disease all make an impact on these oceanic hotspots of life.

biodegradable sunscreen

Using biodegradable sunscreen is a safer alternative for corals, such as this one that I photographed in Australia's Coral Sea.

Research now shows that we can add chemical bombardment to the list of assaults we are making on these most delicate ecosystems. Compounds such as paraben, cinnamate, benzophenone, and camphor derivatives have been shown to cause bleaching of corals, even at low concentrations.

Coral bleaching occurs when the symbiotic algae, zooxanthellae, which live within the soft coral tissue are killed or released by the corals. If the coral isn’t able to acquire new symbiotic algae within a reasonable time period, it dies.

Bleaching often occurs with a rise in sea temperature. Hot water events cause the algae to produce large quantities of oxygen and the corals expel the algae into the surrounding environment.

However, this chemical bleaching caused by sunscreen ingredients has a different method of attack. The chemicals stimulate dormant viral infections within the symbiotic algae. The viruses start to replicate and eventually kill the algae. When the algae die, the virus particles are released into the surrounding environment and are capable of infecting new hosts. This bleaching can happen within a few hours of exposure to these chemical compounds.

Using a biodegradable sunscreen is better for corals

One way to avoid damaging corals is to use a sunscreen that breaks down naturally in the environment within a reasonable amount of time (i.e. biodegradable) and that does not contain harmful chemicals such as PABA, octinoxate, oxybenzone, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, oils, or the preservative butylparaben.

Many tourist destinations, including Mexico, now require the use of biodegradable sunscreen. Florida’s Channel 7 News covers some of the advantages of using biodegradable sunscreen:

Sun protection that’s not at the expense of coral reefs

Biodegradable sunscreen isn’t too hard to find, but even if a sunscreen is marketed as biodegradable, have a look at the ingredient list for those harmful chemicals I’ve listed above.

Some of the commercially available products available are:

  • Mexitan – This is recommended by many companies operating reef excursions. Spreading it on is unlike other sunscreens, so it takes a little practice. Apply thinly and quickly and put it on half an hour before going out in the sun.
  • Reef Safe – This is the product shown on the Channel 7 News clip above. It’s SPF45+, waterproof up to 80 minutes, and designed by an avid diver, so you know that the developer has both the reef and the user in mind.
  • BurnOut – This is an eco-sensitive zinc oxide sunscreen, with an SPF32. It’s paraben-free, petroleum-free and paba-free.

Alternatively, you can consider making your own natural sunscreen as shown in this video:

So, if you are headed for a reef destination, be sure to pack some biodegradable sunscreen. Even if it isn’t yet mandated through policy or law, it should be a personal choice that protects you without causing damage to our coral reefs.

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