Coral reefs worldwide are in decline. Along with the nutrients released by glaciers, which are currently receding at an alarming rate, corals are at the bottom of the food chain, the basis of all life on the planet. Which means their decline should be of concern to everyone – so of course should be the overall health of the planet, but unfortunately to many it’s not. Some of the worst offenders are governments of countries who could do the most to help if they cared to.
At least some countries care about coral. On a recent visit to Bermuda our local guide on a snorkel excursion mentioned how they have a lot of protections for the coral there. It has declined only 11%. Which sounds bad unless you are aware that Caribbean corals are at around an 80% decline. There’s not a lot each individual can do to stop rising ocean temperatures, changes in the PH balance, water pollution, storms, overfishing, fertilizer runoff, and other things that harm coral, but there are a few things everyone can do. First of all don’t touch the coral you encounter. Also never litter. Besides fouling the land, things people carelessly toss aside often end up in the sea. Just as important, especially when in tropical areas, do everything you can to protect the coral. Unfortunately the mass-marketed sunscreens that most people use are oil and/or chemical based. Just one drop of chemicals widely used in sunscreen like oxybenzone in an area larger than several olympic sized swimming pools is enough to deform coral cells and kill their larvae. Other damaging chemicals include octocrylene, 4MBC, butylparaben and octinoxate. Chemicals used in the average sunscreen bleach the coral and oils smother it. Even some natural oils – those that work as insecticides – can kill coral. You don’t even need to go to the beach to do harm because the wrong sort of sunscreen can make its way to the ocean through the sewer systems when washed off.
Luckily there are some companies making biodegradable reef-safe mineral based sunscreens. The best thing about these is that their active ingredients of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are what dermatologists recommend most to prevent skin cancer because they actually create a physical barrier to block harmful rays. This protects skin far better than the chemical based sunscreens most people use. The ingredients are far more important than the SPF factor in providing cancer protection so while protecting the environment you also better protect yourself.
One such company making not only reef safe sunscreen, but also other environmentally friendly products is Deter. Besides being mineral based and reef friendly, their non-greasy hypoallergenic fragrance free child-safe sunscreen also has skin care ingredients including carrot and green tea antioxidants, aloe vera and emollient rich natural oils from soybean, sunflower, almond, sesame, and cocoa butter that are not the sort that harm coral like lavender, tea tree, or jojoba oils can.
The Deter lotion is not as thick as the three I tried last year. It is closer to the consistency of ordinary sunscreens and rubs in just as quickly and easily as the Alba Botanica, which was the easiest to apply of the ones I tried previously. Once on it has a lighter feel on the skin than the other brands I’ve tried. You really don’t notice that it is there. It does not give a specific amount of time for water resistance before the need to reapply, just saying to repply after swimming where the others all gave a time. When asked about this, the company said that according to the FDA sunscreens are given only ratings of 40 or 80 minutes resistance which they earn through testing. This one has not been tested so the amount of time it actually lasts in the water is unknown, though I have noticed that mineral sunscreens tend to last longer than any of the others. The fact that the times given on the package are assigned through passing expensive government testing rather than the actual time a sunscreen lasts explains why the mineral sunscreens last longer in the water than regular ones with the same rating. Regardless of the rating, it’s always a good idea to reapply sunscreen after leaving the water.
I was quite surprised when sunscreen from a company that makes environmentally friendly products arrived in a box of styrofoam packing peanuts. Hopefully the peanuts were recycled from something shipped to them and they were just trying to keep them out of the landfill. (It happens. I re-use the air pillows and bubble wrap my packages come in on things I ship out.)
You probably won’t find coral safe sunscreens in the average store, but they are available online. I haven’t had a chance to try Deter at a beach or for snorkeling yet, but the ease of spreading it on and the light skin feel make it great for everyday use to protect from sunburn and skin cancer. The price is significantly lower than mineral sunscreen from the dermatologist’s office and comparable to other reef-safe brands.