When you think of summer, what thoughts come to mind? The sun, sure. The beach? Absolutely! Lathering on sunscreen because you care about your skin – you betcha! The destruction and bleaching of coral reefs? Hang on, what?
As an ocean lover, today I want to share with you what I have learned about coral reefs, and how they are rapidly dying all over the Earth. You may have been around the ocean and reefs all your life, or you may have never come into contact with them at all. But there are choices each of us make every day that are damaging our reefs, and by 2050, there may none left at all.
What exactly is a reef, and why should I care if it dies?
A reef is a ridge of material near the oceans surface made of rocks or the skeletons of small animals called corals (yep, coral is a skeleton…creepy). Coral reefs are home to thousands of sea creatures including seahorses, turtles, and everyone’s favourite clownfish. In fact, the clownfish developed a way to live within the stinging strands of sea anemone, to protect itself from predators. But all this life is disappearing fast thanks to factors that are stressing and destroying our coral reefs.
It isn’t just ocean life that depends on the survival of coral reefs, people have relied on reefs for fishing and for providing protection to their land for hundreds of years. This is perhaps where The Great Barrier Reef, which is actually made up of over 2,600 reefs, gets its name.
On top of this, reef tourism creates millions of jobs and brings in billions of dollars each year. According to the WWF, the Great Barrier Reef brings in 5.4 billion dollars per year to the Australian economy! As a matter of fact, I have spent over $1,000 in Cairns myself when learning to scuba dive in 2016. Although my experience of the underwater world was beautiful, it was also heartbreaking to see so much bleaching everywhere I went. In fact, the National Geographic claims that half of Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to death since 2016.
All of this, all of the fish, all of the fishing and all of the tourism, all relies on the survival of one teeny tiny algae…
Have you ever heard of zooxanthellae? If you haven’t then be comforted that I hadn’t either so here is a little explanation from the NOAA: Zooxanthellae is a photosynthetic algae that lives in the tissue of coral. “The corals and algae have a mutualistic relationship. The coral provides the algae with a protected environment and compounds they need for photosynthesis. In return, the algae produce oxygen and help the coral to remove wastes. Most importantly, zooxanthellae supply the coral with glucose, glycerol, and amino acids, which are the products of photosynthesis. The coral uses these products to make proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and produce calcium carbonate” Read more here. TLDR: The coral and the zooxanthellae need each other to survive.
Without coral reefs, the thousands of underwater species who rely on them could become extinct and the fishing industry (which employs more than 38 million people world-wide) would collapse. Large weather events would take a greater toll on our coasts and coastal towns, and those that continue to live nearby and depend on local food would likely starve.
How is global warming destroying our coral reefs?
While there are many factors that affect coral reefs, such as destructive fishing techniques and pollution, the main culprit for so many of our beautiful reefs dying is climate change. Coral is a living thing and much like us, coral can get stressed. Sometimes when we are seriously stressed our hair turns grey, when coral becomes stressed it starts to turn white. This stress is caused by rising temperatures in our water that the zooxanthellea algae cannot survive in, leading to our coral reefs lacking the nutrients they need to live.
Coral reefs only grow a few cm each year and when damage does occur, it takes many, many years for the reef to recover. Time is running out for us to turn our habits around and stop temperatures rising even further, and there is one culprit of coral bleaching we have probably all used, and can easily cut out…
Is your sunscreen destroying coral reefs?
There are only a handful of approved chemicals that prevent UV damage to our skin and how they do so falls under two categories: Chemical and mineral. ‘Chemicals’ absorb UV rays on your behalf, so they don’t enter your skin (not all of the approved chemicals absorb both UVA and UVB). ‘Minerals’ act like a mirror on your skin and reflect or bounce both UVA and UVB rays away from your body. If you want to learn more, this video from Live Science explains everything really clearly.
In recent years, studies have been released showing that some sunscreen chemical UV filters are toxic. These chemicals have negative effects on corals and other marine life even at concentrations as low as 62 parts per trillion. The ocean is a pretty large place, so of course the sunscreen is incredibly diluted, but in popular tourist areas the build-up can be destructive. Plus, sunscreen doesn’t only get into the ocean when we go for a swim, it washes off in our sinks and showers too, going down our drain and ending up… in the ocean.
The main chemical in question is oxybenzone, which has been found in the ocean around the world close to various reefs commonly between 100 parts per trillion and 100 ppb. This means the levels of oxybenzone are easily within the range of causing significant damage.
Remember our friend, zooxanthellea? Oxybenzone has been found to damage this algea, which leads to the coral bleaching and slowly dying, just like they do when effected by thermal stress. Additionally, oxybenzone has been shown to disrupt the development process of coral larvae, leading to them turning into skeleton at the wrong stage of their development and die.
In coastal areas that are popular for tourism there have been results showing a high amount of sunscreen and oxybenzone in the surrounding water, that could be damaging nearby reefs. In 2018, 9.3 million people visited Hawaii, and it wouldn’t be wrong to assume the majority of those people went for a swim, making Hawaii’s reefs more stressed than ever.
Due to these findings, Hawaii is banning all sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate from 2021. To make the chemicals even worse they have also been linked to hormone disruption in people, with a 2016 study finding that adolescent boys with higher oxybenzone levels had significantly lower total testosterone levels.
Switching to a sunscreen that uses reef-save ingredients to protect us from UV rays is now incredibly easy, and one amazing way we can help to prevent our beautiful reefs from further bleaching.
My top choice for reef-safe sunscreen
While I am still going through the process of testing out various sunscreens for my body, I am utterly in love with the Sukin tinted facial sunscreen for use every day on my face. Since it is recommended to use sunscreen every day to protect your skin and prevent signs of aging, I wanted to focus on finding a top-notch facial sunscreen first. The Sukin tinted sunscreen is factor 30, and the tint matches really well with my skin tone. It doesn’t feel suffocating on my skin and works well as a base layer for my make-up. In fact, my makeup goes on better when I am wearing it than if I’m not!
The UV protecting ingredient in Sukin’s sunscreen is zinc oxide, which reflects UVA and UVB rays away from your skin (instead of absorbing them like chemical ingredients). You may think that this reflective property may mean that sunscreens containing zinc oxide will leave a white mark on your skin, but zinc oxide can be micronized (broken down into teeny tiny particles) so that it appears transparent on your skin.
Sukin sunscreen is great for everyday wear, cruelty free and completely vegan! Plus, it starts working straight away! Chemical sunscreens advise application 30 minutes before going in the sun because it takes a while to absorb into your skin and start absording UV rays, however mineral sunscreens like Sukin’s start working straight away because sit on top of your skin. If you plan on going in the sea you will need some extra protection since this formulation is not waterproof (most waterproof sunscreens use beeswax!), and once your out be sure to reapply your Sukin sunscreen!
Impacts of sunscreen on coral reefs – ICRI briefing (presentation)
Disclaimer: I was contacted by Sukin to write an article to educate my readers about the dangers of sunscreens containing oxybenzone. While they did not mention the need to talk about their new tinted and untinted sunscreens, I had already purchased both products so I could review them independently, and since I have been impressed (and will be creating a review in the future) I wanted to include that information here.