The Great Barrier Reef located off the coast of Australia is the most famous reef and underwater ecosystem in the world. As a habitat to thousands of marine species, naturally the Great Barrier Reef is also a popular location for snorkelers around the world. Unfortunately, this beautiful snorkeling hot spot is dying, or rather, bleaching.
In a recent survey by Australia’s National Bleaching Task Force, they found that of the 911 reefs they studied within the Great Barrier Reef, bleaching affected 93 percent of them to a varying degree. While reef bleaching is caused by a variety of reasons including pollution, changes in salinity, disease, and warming ocean waters, one cause of the bleaching of reefs around the world could potentially be blamed on the sunscreen that swimmers, divers, and snorkelers come slathered in.
How Does Sunscreen Hurt Reefs?
It is currently believed that around 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen washes off visitors in reef environments every year. While that is a lot of sunscreen in general, it seems like even more when you consider that it only takes the equivalent of a drop in an Olympic-sized swimming pool for the water to become toxic to coral.
Essentially, there are four common ingredients found in many sunscreens that are responsible for damage to coral in some form.
These ingredients include:
- Oxybenzone (Benxophenone-3, BP-3) – This ingredient can not only cause bleaching, but it disrupts coral reproduction and damages coral DNA.
- Octinoxate (Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate)
- 4-mehtylbenzylidene camphor (4MBC) – Banned in some countries, including the United States, but included in sunscreens in Europe and Canada.
The easiest way to avoid poisoning your favorite snorkel spot with sunscreen is to snorkel without it all together. However, that, if nothing else, is a recipe for a nasty sunburn later. Even rash guards don’t cover every bit of skin that needs to be covered, and casual snorkelers may not want to invest in a serious wet suit.
There is one final alternative: get a sunscreen that is biodegradable and certified coral-safe. Such things do exist, and often they are actually better than your typical sunscreen. The most important thing is that you remember to check the back of any sunscreen bottle for the presence of the Big Four chemicals mentioned above.
You can’t go wrong with a sunscreen whose brand name is “Coral Safe”. This sunscreen provides a broad spectrum sun block that features a 100 percent all-natural formula. It is marketed as non-allergenic and features no harsh chemicals, fragrances, or preservatives that would cause harm to the coral.
Coral Safe uses the typical mixture of all-natural sunscreens that includes zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, but these ingredients are not water resistant. In order to make their sunscreen a good water resistant choice for snorkelers, they use beeswax, sunflower oil, and coconut oil in order to keep it on your skin where it belongs. Unfortunately, this strong water resistance also makes it go one more like a oily paste rather than a sunscreen that absorbs into skin.
However, one of the major benefits of Coral Safe is that ounce-for-ounce, it remains one of the most affordable coral-safe sunscreen options.
Tropical Sands provides the strongest SPF protection that is also coral-safe outside of the Reef Safe brand (which is actually very not reef-safe). With an SPF rating of 50, this is the sunscreen to bring for long snorkel trips in the Caribbean or other equator adjacent locations where the sun is at its strongest. Its stronger SPF rating is given to the formula by an increase of zinc oxide, the substance that life guards used to prevent extreme sunburn.
Like other coral-safe sunscreens, this mix of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is made water resistant by natural oils. Unlike the Coral Safe brand above, Tropical Sands uses less sunflower oil and more jojoba oil to provide water resistance. This allows for a formula that feels less greasy on the skin. However, the high amount of zinc oxide does leave a white film on the skin.
The Badger brand is one of the most popular brands of coral-safe sunscreen, something that can be accredited to its simple five item long ingredient list. Not only that, but those ingredients are all natural and certified 94 percent organic making them not only safe for what is in the water, but your skin as well.
Like the other sunscreens, Badge uses zinc oxide to prevent sunburn, and like all mineral sunscreens will cause a white residue to be present on your skin. However, the most unfortunate downside of the Badger brand is that it only has around 80 minutes of sweat and water resistance. This means that while snorkeling, you will need to return to shore or your boat to reapply. They also make their coral-safe sunscreen in stick form too for kids that are kind of wasteful with lotion.
Much like the other options for coral-safe sunscreen, All Good uses a zinc oxide base that gives good sun protection to skin, albeit with a bit of a chalky white residue. However, what really sets All Good brand apart from the pack is that it uses different oils to give the sunscreen its water resistance. All Good lacks the coconut and sunflower oil for those who have an allergy to either ingredient, replacing them with olive oil, shea butter, and buriti fruit oil. This gives those with sensitive skin another option for reef-safe sunscreen that won’t irritate their skin.