We live in a sunburnt country – while we’re lucky to live in a land of sunshine, of sparkling seas and beckoning beaches, it comes with a sinister dark side. Many sunscreens are harmful to the ocean; we’ve put together a guide to reef safe sunscreen so you can swim without harming the very thing you’re there to enjoy.
Recently it’s come to light that many of the products we use could actually be harming the very places we love to play. We’ve done the research into how to choose a sunscreen that will protect you AND the ocean, what to avoid and why, and which Aussie sunscreen alternatives are out there for all your aquatic adventures.
Why Does Sunscreen Matter?
We all know why this is important – Australia is the land of the hole in the ozone layer and has the highest rates of skin cancer in the world, with New Zealand coming in a close 2nd. Two in three of us will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the time we’re 70.
However, many surfers, snorkelers and swimmers don’t realise that when we’re slopping on sunscreen to protect our skin, we might be damaging our salty playground. An estimated 4000-6000 tonnes of sunscreen is washing off tourists and onto reefs every year. This is why countries like Hawaii and Palau have banned certain sunscreens, and why many Aussie legends have created their own sustainable alternatives. While covering up and seeking shade are the best ways to protect your skin, if the waves are pumping or the ocean’s enticing, sunscreen is vital to keep our skin safe.
What Not To Slop On Your Skin
Sunscreen works by preventing UV rays from damaging your skin in one of two main ways
Absorbs UV radiation using synthetic chemicals e.g. oxybenzone, avobenzone (think your standard sunscreen, with many long, unpronounceable words in the ingredients list)
A physical barrier which blocks UV light by scattering or reflecting it e.g. zinc oxide, titanium dioxide (think of your childhood family holidays, smeared in white zinc with a ghostly glow)
It appears the chemical sunscreens are causing the greatest harm –
- Oxybenzone (or benzophenone) has been linked to coral bleaching, can have toxic effects on young coral and was one of a range of sunscreen chemicals accumulated in jellyfish in Palau’s famous jellyfish lake. It’s also been linked to decreased reproductive success in fish.
- Parabens, cinnamates, benzophenones, and camphor derivatives have been shown to bleach corals at high concentrations.
- Some UV filters, such as ethylhexyl methoxy cinnamate (one of the main chemical UVB filters) have been observed passing from mothers to baby dolphins, accumulating in muscle tissue
Note: As a marine biologist (not a doctor/chemist) I’m not looking at potential human health impacts, just the research on impacts to the ocean.
Unfortunately, this isn’t as simple as just avoiding chemical sunscreens – many physical blockers use nano-particles (smaller minerals) to try and reduce that ghost-face look. Titanium dioxide nano-particles have been linked to damaging phytoplankton, negative impacts on mussels and decrease in coral populations. And just small amounts of nano-zinc oxides from sunscreen caused disrupted development of sea urchin embryos.
To make it worse, some sunscreens contain tiny plastic beads, even smaller than the exfoliating microbeads from facewash or toothpaste that you’re probably familiar with. These ‘sunspheres’ are SPF boosters and there can be up to 100 trillion (100,000,000,000,000) particles in one tube of sunscreen. Just like other microbeads, once in the ocean these can be eaten by fish, mussels, corals and more, introducing chemicals into the food chain and even crossing cellular barriers.
It’s worth noting that there’s still a lot we don’t know and some debate over the science.
Additionally, even large zinc particles are thought to eventually break down into smaller pieces (i.e. nano zinc) when they’re in the ocean. But in a world where our coral reefs are already struggling with rising water temperatures and runoff, many governments agree that precautionary action is needed, and it seems like non-nano zinc is currently the least harmful sunscreen choice.
Which Sunscreen Is Safe?
By now I imagine you’re a little overwhelmed, but this sunscreen story comes with a happy ending – the big hole in the reef friendly sunscreen market is rapidly being filled by small Aussie companies.
For me, non-nano zinc oxide is the best bet for safe sunscreen; it’s come a long way and no longer doubles as a temporary skin-whitener. Everything in this list contains non-nano zinc as the active ingredient, provides broad spectrum cover, doesn’t contain anything blatantly harmful, are packaged (mostly) conscientiously AND are made right here under the Aussie sun:
- Water resistant sunscreen which rubs in clear
- SPF 50+
- Biodegradable, vegan, certified plastic-free
- They also do zinc in gold, pink and tan
- Packaged in tin (Sunscreen: 100g / $29.95, Zinc: 70g / $22.75)
Full disclosure: I’m now a Sunbutter ambassador because I think it’s great (they don’t pay me to say this stuff)
Go Play In The Sunshine!
A summary of what to look for when shopping for safer sunscreen:
✓ Remember, sunscreen can only do so much, the best sun protection is to cover up! Put on a rashie, slip on a shirt and slap on a hat!
✓ Avoid Oxybenzone, butylparapen, octyl methoxycinnamate
✓ Non-nano zinc = the current best option
✓ Broad spectrum – blocks both UVA and UVB light (both of these have been linked to skin cancer)
✓ SPF 30+ at least – SPF (Sun Protection Factor) measures how much UV light gets through to your skin. According to the Australian Cancer Council, SPF 30 will filter 96.7% of UV light and SPF 50 filters 98%. Higher SPF doesn’t last any longer, so re-applying is vital
✓ Re-apply (once every two hours) and make the most of the shade if you’re planning long days in the sun
✓ Don’t be afraid to plaster on the ‘screen – they say at least a teaspoon per limb
✓ Look for the zero – the Plastic Soup Foundation created this logo for products that are 100% free of microplastics
✓ Use the Cancer Council Sun Smart app (for Iphone or Android) to maximise your sun protection with UV alerts and sunscreen reminders