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Should you use reef-friendly sunscreen on holiday? Here’s how to protect your skin responsibly

Sunscreen can wash into the ocean while you're swimming or leach into the sea via waterways.
Sunscreen can wash into the ocean while you're swimming or leach into the sea via waterways. Copyright Canva
Copyright Canva
By Angela Symons
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Your sun protection could be damaging coral reefs. Here's what you can do about it.

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Sunscreen is essential for shielding your skin from the sun’s harmful rays - both on holiday and at home. But while it protects you, is it harming the environment around you?

If you’ve ever lathered up then jumped into the sea, the answer is likely to be ‘yes’.

Many of the chemicals contained in sunscreen are especially damaging to coral reefs and ocean life. It is estimated that over 5,000 tonnes of sunscreen wash off swimmers and into oceans worldwide, according to the US National Park Service.

Expand that to all waterways, including rivers and lakes, and the number is closer to 13,000 tonnes, the American Chemical Society estimates. This comes from both  swimmers and wastewater - highlighting the importance of avoiding chemical-laden sunscreen even when you’re not at the beach.

‘Reef-friendly’ sunscreens promise to help fix this problem. What are they and do they really work?

How can sunscreen harm coral reefs?

Certain chemicals found in sunscreen, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, have been discovered in waters surrounding delicate coral reefs that are popular for swimming and diving.

Research shows that these contaminants are toxic to coral, with the potential to harm their health and reproduction and contribute to bleaching. This threatens the resiliency of coral reefs, which are already at risk due to climate change-induced marine heatwaves.

Why is this a problem?

Coral reefs are vital to the underwater ecosystem, providing food and shelter to around a quarter of all marine life. 

They also provide natural protection for coastal areas by cushioning the waves that hit the shore, and are an important source of income for many communities who depend on them for food and recreation.

Chemicals in sunscreen can also stunt the growth of algae and seaweed, and damage immunity and reproduction in fish and other sea life.

Mineral sunscreens are kinder on the environment than chemical ones.
Mineral sunscreens are kinder on the environment than chemical ones.Canva

What is ‘reef-friendly’ sunscreen?

The phrase ‘reef-friendly’ is used on sunscreens that omit certain harmful chemicals. As the term is not regulated, however, its application varies.

What is widely accepted, though, is that certain molecules in sunscreen are damaging to reefs. This is evidenced by destinations with delicate marine ecosystems - like Hawaii and Thailand - banning or restricting products containing certain ingredients.

When shopping for reef-safe sunscreen, you should therefore look for products that do not include the following:

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • OD-PABA
  • Parabens
  • Triclosan

Sunscreens containing small minerals known as nanoparticles - typically used in spray products - can also be toxic. You should therefore opt for ‘micro-sized’ or ‘non-nano’ mineral sunscreens. Products with exfoliating beads should also be avoided, as they contain microplastics that can wash off into the ocean.

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Look instead for mineral-based products that use non-nano zinc oxide or non-nano titanium dioxide as their active ingredients, which are thought to be less harmful to marine life. Sometimes these products may leave a white colour on the skin when applied, but it’s a small price to pay for protecting the environment.

To reduce your reliance on sunscreen altogether, spend time in the shade or cover up with lightweight UV-protective clothing. And to lessen your contribution to climate change, opt for a holiday destination that can be reached by sustainable transport such as trains.

Read our reviews of natural sunscreens if you want to find recommended brands.

How to find the best reef-friendly sunscreen

Non-profit scientific organisation Haereticus Environmental Laboratory issues its own certification for reef-friendly, biodegradable sunscreens called ‘Protect Land + Sea’.

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It lists qualifying products on its website, including Badger, Odacité, Tropic and Stream2Sea.

Other brands available in Europe include Green People, Pai and UpCircle, though this list is not exhaustive.

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