As we enter these hot summer months, and dream of holidays abroad or sunny staycations, one product moves right to the very top of the must-haves, sunscreen. A necessity for staying safe in the sun, sunscreen protects us from harmful UV rays which can cause nasty burns and a whole array of health issues.
However, when putting together your range of eco-friendly supplies for the summer, have you ever thought about the chemicals used in sunscreen and the harm they could be doing to our oceans? Especially the beautiful, and incredibly important coral reefs? Regardless of where we get into the sea, the chemicals we put into it have a huge impact.
Read on to find out about the coral reef, sunscreen and what you can do to help.
What Is A Coral Reef?
Coral reefs are vast, living, underwater ecosystems. Thousands of reef-building corals cluster together and excrete hard calcium shells to protect their vulnerable bodies. These hardened shells fuse together and create one large, intricate reef. The largest of the reefs is the Great Barrier Reef, found off the northeastern coast of Australia. This incredible collection of coral stretches for an incredible 1429 miles (Just short of the distance from London to Athens!)
Why Is The Coral Reef Important?
This vast collection of different shapes, sizes and colours provide food and a safe haven for an incredible amount of aquatic life, from fish and molluscs to sponges (the kind you may even be found in your collection of eco-friendly supplies) can be found living in or near to a coral reef.
These incredible natural structures are often called the rainforests of the sea and for good reason. Despite taking up less than 1% of the world’s oceans (110,000 square miles… Or around the same size of Italy) they provide safety, food and a home for over 25% of sea-dwelling creatures.
As well as this haven, they also provide physical safety for many landmasses from the sea. Their woven structures help to dampen the force of the sea on land, reducing wave impact by a huge margin, in many cases even more so than man-made structures. For many who live by the coast, life simply wouldn’t be possible without coral reefs.
What Is Happening To The Coral Reef?
Sadly many coral reefs are dying and as with many other areas to do with life on earth, humans and our choices are part of the problem. Their life is dependent on a gentle balance and the slightest change to that balance can cause catastrophic problems. We are at a critical time with coral dying rapidly. The Great Barrier Reef as mentioned previously has lost half its coral since 1995.
A major contributing factor threatening the wellbeing of the coral reef is global warming. As water temperatures rise, zooxanthellae (a type of algae) which many coral species rely on to survive, leave. The zooxanthellae live alongside the coral and use photosynthesis to provide the coral with energy to live and also give them their vivid, beautiful colours. Once they are gone, the corals lose their source of food as well as their colour turning white in a process known as bleaching. Without this source of energy, they can begin to starve and become susceptible to diseases.
Fossil fuels (which contribute to global warming) are also contaminating the ocean water. The vast amount of CO2 which is pumped into the air as a result of burning fossil fuels is absorbed by the oceans water. This increase in CO2 damages the coral’s ability to produce its calcium carbonate exoskeleton. Without this ability, the coral cannot survive.
Other factors damaging the coral reef include overfishing and pollution from both an increasing amount of harsh chemical-based pesticides and sunscreen.
Why Is Sunscreen Bad For The Coral Reef
Sunscreen is a must-have product when packing for any holiday or staycation. We are told to apply it often and liberally to stay protected from the sun. Though many claim to be water-resistant, nothing is 100% and when we are enjoying those cool, blue, sea waters, a lot of the sunscreen does wash off. In fact, it has been estimated that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in coral reef areas every year.
While global warming is currently the largest contributor to the declining health of the coral reefs, many reefs felt the effect of sunscreen pollution first. For example, 85% of the Caribbean coral reefs died before 1999 or 2000, not as a result of global warming, but from sunscreen poisoning.
Many traditional sunscreens contain a number of harsh chemicals to provide us with the necessary levels of UV protection. The two main components in sunscreen to look out for when packing sunscreen into your eco-friendly supplies are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. These have been linked to defects in young coral and potentially awakening dormant infections in the previously mentioned Zooxanthellae causing them to die.
What Can You Do?
The first thing you can do is look for reef-safe sunscreen to add to your collection of eco-friendly supplies. Though some sunscreens do say reef-safe, this isn’t currently a regulated term so it’s not a 100% guarantee of its eco-friendliness, so you will need to perform a few checks of your own.
- Looking at the active ingredients to see what is going on in the bottle. You’ll be looking for chemicals you want to avoid like Oxybenzone and Octinoxate mentioned above but also Octocrylene, Homosalate and a few others. Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide are the common mineral sun filters that are currently thought to be coral safe.
- Try to stick with lotions where possible rather than sprays as these can get caught in the air. This is particularly important if you buy a reef-safe sunscreen with titanium dioxide as breathing it in can be hazardous to your health.
- As well as chemical’s you’ll also want to look for the words ‘micro-sized’ (or non-nano) to help you to avoid nanoparticles, as these smaller particles can be toxic in high concentrations.
It is important to note that these eco-friendly supplies may be more expensive than traditional versions as the ingredients that go into them. So remember to factor this cost into your plans.Even if this year you plan to visit the golden sandy shores in the UK, it’s important to consider the chemicals we put into the sea. Even though corals are not directly near, like all pollutants, the chemicals are still carried in the water.
If you decide that the cost of reef safe eco-friendly supplies is too much but you still want to enjoy the sea and help save the coral reef, then a great alternative is a simple physical barrier.Covering most of your body in Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) clothing—or even just a regular old T-shirt, will offer you excellent protection. You’ll still have to apply sunscreen to those areas which are exposed to the sun, but you’ll need far less than you would in a bathing suit alone. Which is great news for the environment.
By taking these things into consideration you’ll be doing your part to a healthier reef.
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Considering what sunscreen to include in your eco-supplies is a great step toward an eco-conscious lifestyle. Shop from GoEthical to help you to continue making sustainable choices.
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