What your sunscreen is doing to the Great Barrier Reef

Tara Ali
November 25, 2016

What your sunscreen is doing to the Great Barrier Reef + how to choose a better one

The catchcry of childhood summers 'Slip, Slop, Slap’ was one of the most successful health campaigns in Australian history, making everyone uber aware of sun protection. But since then, it’s been discovered that some of the chemicals in the thousands of tons of cream we’ve been meticulously applying over the years have been slowly killing coral around the world and in the Great Barrier Reef.

The scene beneath the waters is highly upsetting. Coral is a living animal, and when it dies it begins to rot, turning from a beautiful white to dark brown, and smelling rotten. Reef surveyors have reported widespread (some say up to 60 per cent) damage in Queensland’s once pristine marine ecosystem, and it’s irreversible.  


Under threat

Several things are threatening coral reefs globally, including water temperature increase from climate change and fertiliser runoffs, pesticides and other chemicals. One of those chemicals is oxybenzone, a major ingredient found in, yep you guessed it, most sunscreens. Around 3,500 brands worldwide, actually. Yikes.    

A study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology last year found that the UV filtering chemical oxybenzone alters coral DNA, makes it more susceptible to bleaching (when tiny algae that gives coral it’s beautiful colours are ejected from the corals, turning them white), and causes baby coral to die.   


So what can you do to help?

Between 6000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers, scuba divers, and snorkelers into coral reef environments each year. Some marine parks overseas have banned tourists from applying it before swimming near delicate reefs. Other companies are wisening up to the environmental impact of sunscreen and using different, safer ingredients. There are better, less harmful choices you can make. Here’s how:

1. Don’t shun sunscreen, we still need it to prevent UV induced skin damage. Instead, look at the ingredients on your sunscreen or SPF product and don’t use one that contains oxybenzone.

2. Some sunscreens state that they are ‘reef safe’ but these claims are unregulated so it’s best to check ingredients for yourself.

3. In addition to your oxybenzone-free sunscreen, choose a moisturiser that contains SPF without the added nasties. Swisse Natural Defence is a SPF 15 moisturiser that contains only natural mineral UV filters and a plant extract from Knotgrass that protects from Infra-red induced skin damage. “These products contain powerful antioxidants such as broccoli and Pepper berry that help to protect the skin from UV induced premature ageing,” says Selina Mithen, Swisse Skincare Specialist.

4. Look for a sunscreen that contains physical sunblocks such as titanium or zinc oxide instead of chemicals.

5. Wear a SPF rash guard at the beach and when you go into the water to reduce the amount of sunscreen you put on your skin.