Why are some holiday destinations banning sunscreen?

Angela Nielsen
Jul 23, 2023

The city of Key West in Florida is the most recent holiday destination to announce it will be banning the use of some sunscreens from January 2021, following in the footsteps of the Pacific Islands of Palau (from 2020) and Hawaii (from 2021), and the Caribbean islands of Aruba (from 2020) and Bonaire (from 2021).

The reason for this growing stance, is that while sunscreen may be useful for protecting human skin, some of the ingredients in chemical sunscreens are proving to have a detrimental effect on the coral reefs surrounding these destinations – and coral reefs are too important, not only to marine ecosystems, but also for local economies, to ignore.

Two ingredients in particular in chemical sunscreens have had scientists concerned for some time - oxybenzone and octinoxate. These have been found to damage the DNA of corals, cause coral deformities and accelerate the rate of coral bleaching.

It is estimated that between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter our oceans each year; most of it concentrated in areas popular for swimming and diving. It not only comes directly from beach-goers, but also through wastewater from when sunscreen washes off us while showering. Researchers have found that it takes only a drop of oxybenzone in six-and-a-half Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water to cause damage.

At a time when coral is already under threat from the effects of climate change, pollution, and harmful fishing practices; chemicals from sunscreen are only adding to their vulnerability.

Why is it so important to protect coral reefs?

Coral reefs are hugely valuable ecosystems, supporting and providing a habitat for more than 25% of all marine life. The vast biodiversity of coral reefs is essential for their health and survival. Each species has an important role to play in balancing the ecosystem, and the more diverse coral reefs are, the more resilient they are to threats.

Millions of people worldwide are also hugely reliant on many of the species that reside in coral reefs, not only for food and income, but also for medicinal purposes. It is estimated that coral reefs may provide a staggering US$375 billion worth of goods and services each year.

Coral reefs also protect coastal wetlands and provide important protection from large storm surges to coastal areas. As we begin to experience more unsettled atmospheric conditions due to the effects of climate change, our need for coral reefs to help protect coastal areas will only become stronger.

Some resorts in tropical destinations that have a first-hand connection and dependence on their local coral reefs, are even proactively taking their own action to protect them, by prohibiting their guests from using chemical sunscreens. Leleuvia Island Resort in Fiji is one such example.

For over six years they have had a marine reserve around their island and have been running a coral planting programme. They hope the sunscreen ban will assist their marine conservation efforts, but their mission extends even further:

We hope to spread awareness through our guests and through other resorts so that we can eventually move to banning chemical sunscreens in Fiji all together for the benefit of our marine life. There are also studies showing the dangers of these chemicals in humans and these same chemicals are used in everyday women's cosmetics, so the more people are aware of this, the greater chance we have of driving consumer demand towards mineral sunscreens and cosmetics.

Colin Philp, Leleuvia Island Resort

Leleuvia Island Resort, Fiji

So, what are our options as sun-loving GOOD travellers to protect our skin as well as the environment?

Sunscreens can be divided into two categories – physical/mineral blockers and chemical absorbers.

Physical blockers do not absorb into the skin, but rather sit on the surface and deflect ultra violet rays. They contain active minerals - usually titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, and work immediately upon application. While considered more effective against both UVA and UVB rays, they are thicker to apply and remain visible on the skin.

Chemical sunscreens are sunscreens that absorb into your skin and work by transforming the ultraviolet rays to heat, which is then released from your skin. It takes about 20 minutes from application before becoming effective. These tend to become invisible on the skin.

While most research done in this area has focussed on the harmful effects of ingredients in chemical sunscreens, recent research has shown that zinc oxide might also be just as damaging to coral. This highlights the need for more research in this area to establish exactly which ingredients are safe and effective. While some sunscreens claim to be reef-safe because they do not contain oxybenzone and octinoxate, they may contain other ingredients not yet verified to be safe for marine life, so this label is unfortunately not always reliable.

There is no need to fear though that your days frolicking in the sun and surf are over while we wait for safe alternative sunscreens to hit the market. Now is a great time to embrace other ways of protecting our skin from the sun. One very GOOD option that we love for being both sun-safe and reef-safe is to wear rash suits while swimming, and clothing with a UV protection factor (UPF) - or any kind of clothing where a minimal amount of light gets through to our skin. There are more and more options for stylish, comfortable UPF clothing and swimwear (check out Coolibar for an extensive range) and some great personal benefits too, such as not needing to reapply sunscreen every couple of hours and saving money in the long run by not getting through so much sunscreen. While it is still recommended to wear sunscreen on exposed skin, the amount of sunscreen needed is significantly reduced.

If we can take action now by at least reducing the amount of these chemicals entering our waters, we are on the right path.

To learn other ways to support and protect coral reefs revisit our article on Combating Coral Extinction by 2050.

July 23, 2023
5 min read