Although the chemicals used in sunscreen are safe for humans, some of them have harmful environmental impacts

By Glenn Garner
May 13, 2021 04:04 PM
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Hawaii resort
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As the tourism industry prepares to get back to business this summer, some travelers will have to revise their packing list.

Several tropical destinations are banning certain sunscreens, out of concern for the local environment, according to multiple reports. Although the ingredients found in sunblock, like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octoerylene are safe for human use, they've been known to contribute to the bleaching of coral reefs, along with rising ocean temperatures.

"Corals would normally bleach when the temperatures are above 31 Celsius [81.7 Fahrenheit] so it's really warm water," Dr. Craig A. Downs, Ph.D., executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory told Travel + Leisure. "[Oxybenzone] will cause corals to bleach at 78 degrees, and that's non-bleaching temperature." 

It was estimated in 2015 that around 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the world's coral reefs annually, causing irreparable damage to the ecosystem.

hawaii
Credit: Getty

"Eighty-five percent of the Caribbean coral reefs died before 1999 or 2000," Dr. Downs explained. "That wasn't global warming. It's pollution."

Destinations like Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba, Bonaire, Palau and several ecotourism reserves in Mexico have banned the sale, and sometimes the use, of such harmful sunscreens.

Key West voted to pass their own sunscreen restrictions in 2019, but the legislation was blocked by Florida Governor Ron Desantis.

Luckily there are reef-safe alternatives available.

Non-nano mineral sunscreens use ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide because nano minerals can be toxic to invertebrates. Reef-friendly brands are often marked as such, and they're usually less irritating to sensitive skin, according to the Mayo Clinic.

Nneka Leiba, vice president for Healthy Living Science for the Environmental Working Group (EWC) notes that there is no legal definition for "reef safe," but companies typically use it to mean a product is free of oxybenzone or octinoxate.

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The EWG recently published its list of 2021's best sunscreens, which "does not specifically factor in environmental health, however, most of the chemicals that have negative impacts on our environment also negatively impact human health. As such, the products on our list tend to be best for both human health and the environment," Leiba tells PEOPLE.

Save the Reef has also released a guide of reef-friendly brands.

The Food and Drug Administration has not updated sunscreens regulations since 2011, Leiba adds. "Despite a number studies highlighting the possible links between many active ingredients and health harms, it has yet to approve safer sunscreen ingredients or ban those that cause concern."