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Protecting Sharks: Should Non-Reef Safe Sunscreens be Banned?

As summer approaches and people flock to beaches worldwide, the use of sunscreen becomes a hot topic, not just for skin protection but also for environmental conservation. One critical aspect often overlooked is the impact of sunscreen on marine ecosystems, particularly coral reefs. With the health of these reefs directly affecting marine life, including sharks, it raises a pressing question: Should non-reef safe sunscreens be banned?


A graphic of sunbathers with sunscreen that can kill the reef
Most Sunscreens Contain Chemicals Which Can Bleach and Kill Coral.

Coral reefs are vital to the health of the ocean. They provide habitat and nursery grounds for many marine species, including fish, invertebrates, and sharks. These ecosystems support biodiversity and contribute significantly to the stability and health of the broader marine environment. Healthy coral reefs are crucial for the survival of many shark species, which rely on them for food and shelter.


Non-reef safe sunscreens contain chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate, which have been shown to cause coral bleaching, damage coral DNA, and disrupt the growth and reproductive cycles of marine life. When swimmers and beachgoers use these sunscreens, the chemicals wash off their skin and enter the ocean, leading to harmful effects on coral reefs.


Palau, a nation renowned for its rich marine biodiversity, has long since taken the pioneering step of banning non-reef safe sunscreens imposing large fines on shops that sell it. This ban aims to protect their coral reefs and, by extension, the marine life that depends on these ecosystems.

a leopard shark swimming in a coral reef
A Leopard Shark Cruising the Reef. Photo by Karl Marchant

Sharks are apex predators and play a crucial role in maintaining the balance of marine ecosystems. They help regulate species populations and ensure healthy fish stocks, which are essential for the overall health of the ocean. The degradation of coral reefs can disrupt these dynamics, threatening the survival of shark populations.


Coral reefs provide critical habitats for many shark species, particularly juvenile sharks. These areas offer abundant food resources and shelter from larger predators. The decline of coral reefs due to harmful chemicals in non-reef safe sunscreens can reduce these habitats, affecting shark populations and the broader marine ecosystem.


A feather star on a fan coral
Coral Reefs are Home to Many Types of Marine Life. Photo By Deborah Holden

Given the clear link between coral reef health and shark survival, the need for global action to ban non-reef safe sunscreens becomes evident. By following Palau's example, other countries can take significant steps to protect their marine environments. This involves raising awareness about the impact of sunscreen on coral reefs and promoting the use of reef-safe alternatives.


Reef-safe sunscreens are often marketed as using minerals like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which are generally considered less harmful to marine life than chemical alternatives. However, recent studies have shown that even these mineral-based sunscreens can have detrimental effects on marine ecosystems. The confusion arises because while zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are better than chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate, they are not entirely harmless.


These minerals can still contribute to water pollution and potentially affect marine organisms when they accumulate in large quantities. Additionally, some "reef-safe" sunscreens may contain other ingredients that are not clearly labeled but can still harm marine life.


To ensure you are using a truly reef-safe sunscreen, look for products that are explicitly marked as reef-safe by reputable organisations or certification bodies. Research the brand and its ingredients, and prefer formulations that use non-nano zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which are less likely to be ingested by marine organisms. By being vigilant and informed, beachgoers can minimise their environmental impact while enjoying the sun.


As we gear up for another summer, it is crucial to consider the broader impact of our sunscreen choices. Protecting coral reefs is not just about preserving their beauty; it is about safeguarding the intricate web of life they support, including vital shark populations. Banning non-reef safe sunscreens is a necessary step towards ensuring the health of our oceans and the survival of the diverse marine species that depend on them. By making conscientious choices, we can all contribute to a healthier planet and thriving marine ecosystems.


If you would like to purchase reef safe sunscreen knowing that it's ingredients are indeed safe for the reef, we love this company: https://www.reefrepair.com/shop/sunscreen/


We need your help to continue our fight to save sharks and educate people on their importance. If you would like to get involved, become a member today!



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