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

My heart fell when I found out that sunscreen, 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 sunblock containing the ingredient oxybenzone is enough to disrupt coral’s reproduction and growth cycles. This, on top of several other man-made causes, leads to coral bleaching.

While sun-blocking ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene have been deemed safe for human use, studies show that they exacerbate reef bleaching associated with warming ocean temperatures. 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 you 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, and it was officially implemented into law in 2021. In 2018, Hawaiian Airlines started giving free samples of reef-safe sun care to their customers. A growing number of beach resorts educate their customers about reef-safe SPF.

Following Hawaii’s lead, several other destinations such as Palau and the U.S. Virgin Islands have banned sunscreens that contain oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate. Let’s hope more countries follow suit.

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 mineral-based sunblock. Look for reef-friendly ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide instead of oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are chemical compounds. Read the labels well! Here are online inventories of reef-safe sunblock brands around the world:

Haereticus Environmental Lab
Environmental Working Group

My dermatologist from Makati Med prescribed Vanicream SPF 50 for my skin that’s prone to melasma. The 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 matte finish, and is trickier to apply. I recommend you pre-mix it with your favorite moisturizer or lotion for easier gliding on the skin. You may also try applying it with a beauty blender.
Magwai Reef-safe Sunscreen SPF 50+, ₱599 (100ml))

2. Educate other people. Not everyone is aware of this occurrence. 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 on 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 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 anti-UV shirts and a wide-brimmed hat.

Harmless sunblock: a wide-brimmed hat. Photo courtesy of Pixabay.
Belo Sun Expert Reef-Friendly SPF60 Sunscreen, ₱375 (50ml)

5. Read more about this issue:
Condé Nast Traveler
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: April 11, 2022