Sian O’Carroll

August 3, 2020

The connection between sun creams and the bleaching of coral reefs

The connection between sun creams and the bleaching of coral reefs

Sian O’Carroll

August 3, 2020

Is there any fantasy dreamier than crystal clear, shimmering waters, powdery white sand and schools of tropical fish flitting past vividly coloured corals? Potentially, not.

Living in Ireland means we all dream of sunnier (rain-free) climates – and we all know how necessary it is to protect our skin from the sun’s harsh rays, no matter how burn-prone we may be. However, what you might not know is that these protective SPFs are destroying the oceanic paradises of our dreams at alarming speed thanks to their active chemical ingredients. No, really.

Read on to find out how the SPFs we use negatively impact our planet, and how to shop for products that don’t.

Coral reef

The basics

For the most part, sunscreens available for us to buy include either chemicals or minerals that absorb or deflect the sun’s harmful UVA and UVB rays, with the majority of products relying on chemicals in their ingredients. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are two of the most commonly-found chemicals in sun protection products, and both are known for having extremely detrimental effects on ocean life and the planet’s coral reefs – coupled with the fact that an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen seeps into our reefs each year, this makes for an extremely worrying combination. 


A 2016 study carried out by ecotoxicologists found that the chemicals found in sunscreen (oxybenzone being the biggest culprit) can actually alter the DNA of coral, essentially making it sterile and unable to reproduce. On top of this, even a small amount of oxybenzone can kill younger corals and induce bleaching in older reefs, causing the coral to starve to death. Considering how +$150 billion dollars worth of sun care is sold globally each year, these repercussions aren’t only worrying – they’re an urgent problem

So, what can we do to stop the damage from going any further?

Coral reef

Cover up & get shady

For starters, avoiding direct sunshine altogether is a simple way of negating the need for SPF – though you need to make sure you’re taking enough alternative precautions, and it’s definitely not recommended if you’re prone to sunburn or for children. Investing in protective beach clothing like rash vests or kaftans (and a huge, very glam sunhat, of course) and staying in shaded areas are a must if you’re deciding to go completely SPF-free. 

Go “reef-safe”


Choosing a mineral (natural) SPF is a great route to take, with some places now banning all but mineral sunscreen. That being said, it’s important to note that not all mineral SPFs are created equal, and some still do contain ocean-damaging ingredients. The issue relates to how mineral sunscreen manufacturers can often use nano-sized particles in their formulas to avoid the dreaded pasty-white layer sunscreen can leave behind on skin. Unfortunately, these particles are small enough to be consumed by coral and can have a similar effect to oxybenzone and octinoxate. I know, I know, it’s such a minefield. 


Whether you go down the mineral route or not, just be sure to look for a specified “reef-safe” formula. Usually those with the more simple ingredient lists are worth trusting. And if in doubt about a brand, give it a quick Google search to make sure it really lives up to its claims. 


Whatever method of sun protection you choose, making sure it’s ocean-friendly (“reef safe”) is one way you can actively help to preserve the health and beauty of our sea life and coral reefs. 


If you need a helping hand to start, check out a few of our favourite reef-safe SPF options below. 


Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30 – Ren

Using non-nano sized mineral particles, Ren’s non-greasy and lightweight formula is ideal for daily use on the face and décolletage. 


Play SPF 50 Everyday Lotion – Supergoop! 

This hardworking SPF can be used on the face and body and guarantees full protection on even the sunniest days. 


Milky Sun Spray SPF 50 – Caudalie 

This light spray is non-greasy and a pleasure to wear, but Caudalie’s entire range of suncare is not only entirely reef-safe, it feels like a wonderful treat for your skin too.