Earth Challenge

Reef Safe Sunblock

Author: Kayla Phaneuf

It probably comes at no surprise that sunblocks and skin care products can contain harmful chemicals that have the potential to hurt not only your skin, but also the wild marine life found in oceans. It is important when going to the beach to only use reef safe sunblock to better protect the ocean and coral reefs: home to fish, coral, and other marine plants. 

Photo by Neha Pandey on

What is a Reef?

Reefs are natural underwater structures made up of corals, which are a type of marine invertebrate (Live Science). According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, around 25% of known marine species need the reef to survive. This means coral reefs are an important aspect of the ocean’s ecosystem because fish, invertebrates, sea turtles, and marine plants use the reef as a means of habitat, nutrition and food, and a space for breeding (NOAA)

How Can Sunscreen Harm the Reef?

Sunscreen can contain harmful chemicals, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, and many more. The sunscreen, when wet, can melt off into the ocean, lingering in the water, allowing the reefs to absorb the chemicals, causing what is called “coral bleaching.” Coral bleaching naturally does not happen unless the water is extremely hot, but the dangerous chemicals can trigger coral bleaching at a much lower temperature than is organic (Travel and Leisure). Not to mention, the chemicals can also harm fish and other wildlife and can even affect people who eat fish from the ocean that have soaked chemicals into their skin. 

What to Avoid and What to Buy

So what can you do to avoid the more dangerous sunscreens and use sunscreens that are safer for the reef, the animals, and your skin? There are a few ways to identify safer sunscreens. 

  • Read the ingredients list. Avoid sunscreen with oxybenzone and octinoxate. You can also familiarize yourself with the names of other harmful chemicals that might show up in your sunscreen: octocrylene, homosalate, and parabens are some examples (Save the Reef)
  • Look out for nano-particles vs non-nano particles. Nano-particles are more dangerous because they are smaller and more likely to dissolve into the ocean water. Non-nano particles are more beneficial because if they come off the skin, they sink down to the ocean floor and don’t absorb into the water in the same way (Allure)
  • Try Zinc-based products. Non-nano zinc-oxide based skin is not only better for the ocean, but is also better for your skin. Zinc-oxide sunscreen is mineral based, more natural, and works as a layer over the skin instead of sinking into your skin and bloodstream. 

As with anything relating to the environment, it is important to educate oneself and exhibit mindfulness on how one’s actions are impacting their surroundings, their own body health, and the effect they are having on nature. Reef-safe sunblock during the summer visits to the beach is just one small step to bettering the planet and taking care of the environment.