Following in Hawaii’s footsteps, the island nation of Palau passed a law last week that bans reef-toxic sunscreen. Certain chemicals in these sunscreens, including oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene, pose a hazard to coral reefs by sapping them of nutrients and bleaching the coral white.
Recently, retailers such as REI have agreed to stop carrying products that contain oxybenzone. But oxybenzone and octinoxate—which are two of the most commonly used UV blockers worldwide—aren’t the only two ingredients that may be damaging to marine life. According to the law in Palau, any sunscreen with the following 10 chemicals can be considered reef-toxic: oxybenzone, octylmethoxycinnamate, octocrylene, 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor, triclosan, methyl paraben, ethyl paraben, butyl paraben, benzyl paraben, and phenoxythanol.
If you think you’re doing good by buying a sunscreen labeled reef safe, you might be fooled. The government has yet to define the term reef safe and therefore it’s not strictly regulated. This means sunscreen manufacturers aren’t required to test and demonstrate that such products won’t harm aquatic life in any form or concentration level.
While you can’t be 100 percent certain any sunscreen is completely reef safe, more and more reef-friendly sunscreens have hit the market. Mineral sunscreens made from zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, for example, appear to be safer for coral reefs than chemical ones, according to the National Park Service. Products include Badger Active, CeraVe, Dermatone, and Beyond Coastal.
Over and above sunscreen, there are some reef-friendly moves you can take. Namely, If you plan to go into the water at the beach, the best way to protect both yourself and the environment may be to cover most of your body with UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) clothing—think rash guards, or even sun deflecting apparel like that from Columbia Sportswear. You may still need a little sunscreen here and there, but far less than you would if wearing only a swimsuit.
“From an environmental perspective,” executive director and researcher Craig Downs of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia says, “that’s a massive victory. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers.”