Everyday Enviro with Elise: slip, slop, slap to protect the environment

Everyday Enviro with Elise: slip, slop, slap to protect the environment

    By Elise Catterall  November 9th, 2023

    Summer is approaching, and with it, the ubiquitous concerns about sun exposure and sun protection. Here Elise looks at the environmental impact of sunscreen and what to look for to make a positive difference.


    While sunscreen is essential for protecting our skin from the sun's harmful UV rays, some sunscreen ingredients can have a negative impact on oceans and the environment. We have written about the impact of sunscreen on the environment before, but the concerns continue so we felt it was time for an updated look at the situation.

    When we wrote last, Hawaii and some other islands had just banned sunscreens containing chemicals harmful to coral reefs. This was because two common sunscreen ingredients (oxybenzone and octinoxate), were shown to be highly toxic to coral, even at low concentrations.

    Exposure to oxybenzone and octinoxate can cause coral bleaching, DNA damage, and reproductive problems. Oxybenzone has also been linked to endocrine disruption in marine life, which can lead to reduced fertility and deformed offspring. If you are interested, The Smithsonian has created a fascinating timeline of the history of sunscreen and its impact on the environment.

    In the years since the ban, concern about these ingredients has only increased, especially their impact on coral reefs, which are already facing many threats from climate change, pollution, and overfishing. A 2022 review by the National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine found that oxybenzone and octinoxate are the chemicals that cause the most harm to coral reefs. When you consider that coral reefs are home to over 25 per cent of all marine life, and that it is estimated that up to 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen are released annually in coral reef areas each year, this is really alarming.

    On top of all that, a recent article in the journal Nature has reported that oxybenzone is seriously detrimental even beyond its link to coral bleaching, as it transforms from a UV-blocking agent into one that damages cells when exposed to light.

    There are so called reef and ocean-friendly sunscreen alternatives available. For example, mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide may be safer for coral reefs and marine life - as long as they don't contain nanoparticles. These sunscreens work by creating a physical barrier on the skin that reflects UV rays away from the body. The Environmental Working Group provides an annual guide to sunscreen that is worth checking out, despite it having a US focus.

    Earth.org has provided the following list of ingredients to avoid: Oxybenzone, Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, nano-Titanium dioxide, Methoxycinnamate, nano-Zinc oxide, Octinoxate, Octocrylene, homosalate, and octisalate.

    In addition to using non-nanoparticle reef and ocean-friendly sunscreen, there are other things we can do to protect coral reefs and marine life, while protecting ourselves from excessive UV exposure.

    • Cover up. Wearing clothing, hats, and sunglasses can help to reduce our exposure to the sun and reduce the need for sunscreen.

    • Seek shade. Whenever possible, seek shade from the sun, especially during the middle of the day when the sun's rays are strongest.

    • Avoid using spray-on sunscreens. Spray-on sunscreens can release tiny particles of sunscreen into the air, which can then be deposited on coral reefs and other marine ecosystems.

    More information and ideas can be found in this National Geographic article.

    By taking these steps, we can do our bit to protect coral reefs and marine life, while still protecting our skin.

    Planet Ark does not take responsibility for the accuracy of the original information and encourages readers to check the references before using this information for their own purposes. 


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    Elise Catterall

    Elise is a writer, photographer, and naturopath with a passion for nature. She completed a Master of Public Health in 2017 through the University of Sydney. Her photographic work focuses on flowers and plants as a way of celebrating nature. She has been writing for Planet Ark since 2017, sharing positive environment stories, personal environmental experiences and perspectives.

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