Sunblocks Are Killing Our Corals! What Can You Do As A Traveler?

My heart fell when I found out that sunscreen kills corals. Yes, the product we regularly slather to protect our skin from UV rays is damaging coral reefs worldwide. According to an environmental study conducted in Hawaii, just a small amount of sunscreen containing the ingredient oxybenzone is enough to disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles. This leads to coral bleaching, on top of several other man-made causes of coral bleaching.

Oxybenzone and octinoxate, ingredients found in common sunblocks, are killing coral reefs worldwide. Photo by Tom Fisk, courtesy of Pexels.

Even if you don’t swim in the ocean right after applying SPF, your sunscreen can still go down the drain and reach the seas when you take a shower or when your spray it near the sand. Each year, about 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in our oceans.

Two years after this study was released, Hawaiian lawmakers passed a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing the harmful ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate, but this bill won’t go into effect until 2021. Last year, Hawaiian Airlines started giving free samples of reef-safe sun care to their customers. Good job, Hawaii! A number of beach resorts have started educating their customers about reef-safe SPF. Let’s hope the rest of the world will follow.

Before you do a knee-jerk reaction of banning sunscreen from your life forever, please remember that we do need sunscreen. It helps prevent skin cancer and skin damage. What’s a frequent traveler and SPF-using person to do?

1. Use sunblock alternatives. Look for mineral-based sunblocks that use zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are much safer than oxybenzone and octinoxate. Read the labels well! Here are online inventories of reef-safe sunblock brands:
Haereticus Environmental Lab
Environmental Working Group
Nanotech Project

My dermatologist from Makati Med prescribed Vanicream SPF 50 for my skin that’s prone to melasma. Price is ₱1,200 for 113g. Vanicream’s main ingredients are Titanium Dioxide and Zinc Oxide, which won’t damage coral reefs in the ocean. Beauty tip: Reef-safe sunscreen is not greasy, has a more matte finish, and trickier to apply. I recommend you pre-mix it with your favorite moisturizer for easy gliding on skin. You may also try applying with a beauty blender
Magwai Reef-safe Sunscreen SPF 50+, ₱599 (100ml))

2. Educate other people. Not everyone is aware of this phenomenon, so tell your friends about it. Aside from sharing articles, inform your friends who own or work in resorts, surfing schools, tour companies, and other beach-related establishments. Some tour companies have already started banning sunscreen brands that don’t adhere to the new safety standards. In Hawaii, tour groups hand out free samples of reef-safe sun care to tourists.

3. Write to your favorite sunscreen brands, especially if they’re part of the offending list. Send emails and leave messages in their social media accounts to pressure them into creating a safer sunscreen formula without oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Human Heart Nature SafeProtect SPF30 Sunscreen, ₱599.75 (200g). There’s also a variant for kids and babies.

4. Add other forms of sun protection. There’s an ongoing debate between environmentalists and offending sunscreen brands. The latter is insisting that oxybenzone is the most effective ingredient to prevent skin cancer, and that banning it supposedly compromises the health and welfare of people. These polarizing views are putting us consumers in the middle, as if making us choose between death by skin cancer or death of coral reefs. Personally, I’m choosing reef-safe sunblocks that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and if you feel that isn’t enough to protect you from skin cancer, then add more layers of protection, like UV shirts and a wide-brimmed hat.

Harmless sunblock: a wide-brimmed hat. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.

5. Read more about this issue:
CNN Travel
New York Times
National Geographic
Travel and Leisure

I’m on the lookout for more reef-safe SPF brands in the Philippines. Share your finds in the comments section below.

Published: August 21, 2018
Updated: March 27, 2019