Reef Safe sunscreen time! I have been meaning to talk this for a very long time, scroll down to the bottom to get a list of some epic sunscreen brands you can get yourself! Or how to make your own!
Hawaii Setting the Bar
Hawaii has just passed a landmark decision, of banning all reef harming sunscreen island wide. The decision is currently awaiting the governors signature and would come into affect January 1st 2021. Currently, estimations are that 14,000 tons of suscreen is deposited in oceans annually. The greatest damage from these chemical products has been found in popular reef areas in Hawaii and the Caribbean. Studies were conducted by the non profict Haereticus Environmental Laboratory which surveyed several beaches, finding the statistics of Trunk Bay receiving 2,000 to 5,000 swimmers daily while Hanauma bay, a popular snorkeling destination in Oahu drawing 2,6000 swimmers a day. Calculating roughly the amount of sunscreen a person puts on and repplies, the amount washed off into the reefs could be up to 200kg per day!
While Hawaii has held campaigns against harmfull sunscreens already, with many tourism destinations reccomending Reef Safe products instead, pushing such legislation into official documents is an incredible victory for the coral habitats. The past 20 years in particular have pushed many Reefs to the brink of catastrophy, accelerated by the extreme mass bleaching events induced by El Niño and local pollution through the booming tourism and development. Craig Downs, the executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory says “Everyone has come together to support this legislation, from local nurses and doctors, to resorts and airlines, as well as the entrepreneurial spirit of new sunscreen companies to supply reef-safer products.”
Craig Down’s PhD, involvement in investigating the effects of sunscreen in coral reefs was catalyed in 2005, when he received a call pleading him to find the cause of the reefs degradation around the U.S Virgin Islands. While originally stumped, the locals quickly pointed the finger at the tourists. Sure enough, after a day of splashing in the water, there was apparently an oil like slick appearance on the surface of the water. The suncreen residue.
Scuba Diving and Snorkeling
In recent years, particularily through PADIs involvement, Scuba Diving has become one of the most popular recreational sports in the world. I myself have been a scuba diver for ten years this year, and am celebrating my 5 year annivesary of being a Scuba Diving Instructor. A job which has taken me all around the world and catalysed my love for the ocean, and the unsatiable desire to protect it. I am not the only one who has been captivated by the under water world, and by recent statistics, there are as possibly as many as 6 million scuba divers worldwide.
The diving and snorkelling industry has boomed, currently making up for $4.2 Billion AUD in Australia alone. 43% of this, is from Queensland which holds the diving hotspot of Cairns famous for its proximity to the Great Barrier Reef. In 2013, a study showed that the Great Barrier Reef provided the equivalent of 69,000 jobs and bringing in $5.69 Billion AUD. Just as expected, humans interactions with the oceans are two sided. On one hand, many coastal towns have flourished from tourism to be able to change from fishing villages to ocean conservation centers. Such as the famous Whale Shark dives in Oslob. It has put several places on the map entirely, like the tiny town of Exmouth in Western Australia who has now celebrated 50 years! I was there last year for my 23rd Birthday, exploring the deserted landscape in Western Australia and vollunteering with whalesharks.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, scientists have studied the impacts of tourism on our oceans and reefs to find the predictable answer. Just like anywhere else human kind has invaded, we have left behind a trail of destruction.
Scuba Diving Damage on Reefs
Studies have published statistics showing that human intervention through the combination of anchoring, fin kicking, people standing on coral, picking coral, boat fuel discharge and general boat traffic has significantly damanged many coral reefs around the world. From a sample of 100 people, they have concluded that 88% made contact with the reef at least once per dive. A dive guides ability to intervene and potentially correct any of these problems decreases once dive group sizes increase.
Bad Bouyancy Control
The primary issue here is bouyancy control of individuals, while not purposefully attempting to touch coral, the lack of training, practise and education often ends with clients or students losing control of their bouyancy and accidentally kicking a piece of coral, flailing with their hands or backing up into the reef. One of the most common things I have seen, that when divers go to check their air pressure, they automatically turn themselves to the upright position, pushing their legs down and letting their fins trail over the reef bottom. This is why I, and many other Instructors spend a large chunk of training time focusing on students bouyancy, to ensure when they become certified divers and are watched a little less closely, they will be able to avoid bouyancy problems on the reef.
Do Not Touch The Coral
Despite the tremendous amount of emphasis and repetition of not touching coral or any other marine life, the human curiosity often conquers. Whether this is an individual decision on the part of a diver, or if they had seen their own instructors or divemasters handling sea cucumbers, poking at lobsters or touching coral, divers seem to be unable to help themselves to reach out and touch the alien objects. The amount of videos and photos on instagram of octopus perched on models butts and shark ‘conservationists’ riding the fins, does not help with the insistance of many dive companies to not touch anything. I constantly have had to tell my customers, students, friends, family and even sometimes myself to stop attempting to reach out and touch a turtle, shark, manta ray or funny looking coral. While touching these creatures can be potentially harmful to the human, with firecoral providing a nasty burn, some shells hiding deadly spikes, the blue ringed octopus capable of paralising you… the primary reason for this rule is to preserve the natural habitat. If divers touch coral, it makes it difficult and sometimes impossible for the coral to recover. In the case of many larger marine animals, they have protecting films covering their body to keep themselves safe from diseases and infections, and by touching them, we expose them to sickness and death. I will do an entire post about touching animals, because it is something that infinitely irks me to see constantly on instagram.
So, back to the sunscreen issue, ontop of the other ways scuba divers, swimmers and snorkellers are hurting the reef, slathering it onto our bodies to try and protect us from UV rays, we need to find an alternative. A growing amount of Reef Safe Sunscreens have appearead on the market, and I wanted to explain what this meant.
How Sunscreen Damages Coral Reefs
After Craig Downs made the connection between the oily pools on the beaches in the U.S virgin islands and sunscreen, he began investigating the relationships closer. He did studies under controlled conditions and indeed found explanations of what had been seen in the wild. Oxybenzone, which is a common ingredient in over 3,500 sunscreens worldwide, can damage coral DNA and lead to what Downs dubbed “Reef Zombies”. These corals and other reef organisms have a normal apperance, however are actually sterile; unable to reproduce and virtually dead. Oxybenzone and other UV absorbing compounds can contribute to coral bleaching, which is a much talked about phenomena in the past several years. Coral bleaching is when life sustaining algae that lives in the coral structures ejects itself and diseapears, leaving the coral skeletons white and bare. This typically happens due to ocean temperature changes, stress or pollution. While some amount of coral bleaching is dubbed normal especially after cyclones or similar natural events, recent years have shown greater areas of coral bleaching occuring, and most importantly, the algae not returning to breathe life back into the stark white skeletons. In 1998, an enormous underwater heatwave killed 16% of the corals on reefs worldwide, which was triggered by the El Niño and was dubbed the first major global coral bleaching event. The second bleaching from El Niño was 2010, and the third and longest event yet in 2015.
Since 1980, 90% of the Reefs in the Caribbean have died, partially due to the enormous amounts of sunscreen used by tourists. The issue has been deemed urgent enough to have certain parts of Mexico to ban oxybenzone products from eco reserves, and Palau (Pacific Ocean) has banned Oxybenzone from Jelly Fish Lake, a UNESCO World Heritage site. However its not just oxybenzone that has been found to damange reefs, below are all the points you should keep in mind when picking your sunscreen
What is Reef Safe Sunscreen?
Primarily, the sunscreens we use are chemical based sunscreens, meaning that when coming into contact with UV light, they absorb the harmful rays protecting the skin. The second type of sunscreens available are physical barrier sunscreens, which create a physical barrier and simply do not allow the UV and UVB light to penetrate these. These physical barrier sunscreens depend more on minerals such as Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide to protect the skin. From poking around in drugstores, I found that these physical sunscreens are generally used more for childrens sunscreens, as they provide better protection and are harder to get off the skin. They both have pros and cons as listed here, however it is precisely the chemical ones which have oxybenzone and similar ingredients damaging our reefs..
Learn About Labels
The active ingredients in chemical sunscreens are the most problematic, even though preservatives can also pose an environmental threat. Avoid these ingredients:
- 4-Methylbenzylidine Camphor
With an entire list on Haereticus Environmental Laboratory’s list
Not All Physical Barrier Sunscreens Are Good
While Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are the ingredients you want to see on the back of your sunscreen, if they are uncoated and nano sized (less than 35nano meters) they can enter the cells of invertibrates. This would cause oxidative stress in sunlight, basically killing the cells. So you are looking for coated, non nano ingredients.
Even when using plant-based oils in addition to sunscreens, such as eucalyptus and lavender, they can actually be dangerous to invertebrates while Beeswax can contain industrial insecticides. Is honey vegan though?
Rub It In
Rubbing on the sunscreen rather than spraying it on, are more likely to stick to your skin while sprays might stick to the sand and during high tide carried to the ocean.
We have all read the warnings about skin cancer being caused by the sun, especially in Australia, where two out of three adults will be diagnosed with skin cancer by the age of 70! Wear clothes, hats and try and stay out of the sun during 11:00 and 14:00.
So here you have it, these are the things you need to look out for to do your part to help decrease your impact on the reef. Here are a few reef safe sunscreen options you can get yourself!
Reef Safe Sunscreen
So please, if you’re planning a diving holiday, get yourself a reef safe option!