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Simply Sustainable: Toxic Sunscreen and Coral Reefs

Happy Summer!! Lets talk sunscreen, it is super important that you protect your skin from harmful sun rays to avoid skin cancer, premature aging and sunburn but many of the name-brand sunscreens use toxic ingredients that are potentially harmful to your health and the environment. Previously on our blog we have highlighted other common ingredients found in sunscreen like Oxybenzone and Benzophenone, two ingredients that are involved in the various sunscreen bans happening in states like Hawaii. This week we will highlight Octinoxate and how it can negatively impact ecosystems like coral reefs. 


Octinoxate, also called Octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC) is an ingredient that you can commonly find in sunscreens because it is a UV filter. The sun releases UV-B and UV-A rays, UV-B rays produce sunburns and UV-A rays are what cause skin damage like aging. Octinoxate only protects against UV-B rays which is why it is usually used in combination with other ingredients. In non-sunscreen products it is used to protect that formula from degrading if exposed to sunlight. In studies octinoxate has been found in human urine, blood and breast milk and is known to absorb into the skin. It is considered an endocrine disruptor because it can mimic the hormone estrogen and impact the thyroid functions; the FDA limits concentrations of octinoxate in products to 7.5% but there is still minimal information regarding its safety for human use. However it is known that octinoxate is damaging to the environment, specifically coral reefs. 

Lets talk Corals!

Corals and sea anemones are marine invertebrates from the class Anthozoa, this includes all types of corals from soft to hard corals. There are several different types of corals but most people think of reef building corals, these are classified into 4 different types. Coral reefs are extremely productive, meaning they are important oxygen producers and they provide habitat for thousands of species. If coral reef ecosystems were to collapse, there would be a domino effect of negative impacts as many species depend on them for survival. 

Coral Anatomy 

When looking at a hard coral for example, it basically just looks like a colorful rock. The hard outer shell/skeleton is made up of something called calcium carbonate, which is a protective barrier that the under-lying soft-bodied organism creates. Corals start off as a single polyp, which looks like a tiny anemone, and that polyp clones itself and produces the hard skeleton to create the reef structures that we see. Underneath the hard skeleton all the polyps are connected but it is in fact one animal that has asexually reproduced to grow. 

How do they feed?

Most corals contain tiny algae-like organisms called zooxanthellae, the zooxanthellae live in the coral and photosynthesize providing the coral with energy and producing the beautiful colors we enjoy. The two have a symbiotic relationship; the coral receives food and the zooxanthellae get shelter. Other corals stretch out their polyps at night to catch anything floating by; and some deep sea corals use thermal-chemicals to get energy because they do not have access to the sun. 

How do they reproduce?

Corals can reproduce sexually and asexually, like mentioned earlier they can clone their polyps to create the huge reef building structures or through budding where polyps detach themselves and settle elsewhere. They can also can reproduce sexually by releasing eggs and sperm. 

Why are they important?

Coral ecosystems are not only important for the species that inhabit them but also for us. Many communities and livelihoods are dependent on the food that comes from coral ecosystems. Those economically important fish use the reefs as nurseries and spawning grounds. Coral reefs also protect our coastlines from storms and greatly support local tourism. 

Corals are extremely sensitive to changes in their environment, in the most recent decade we have seen a major decline in coral populations. This decline has been directly linked to human activity. Sunscreens are a major player in this, many of the chemicals in the sunscreens that we use have been polluting the water and damaging corals. But temperature increases from global warming activities are another offender. This is why many places like Hawaii have banned several sunscreen ingredients to protect their reefs. A documentary called "Chasing Corals" documented several spots around the Great Barrier Reef and showed the death of corals over just a few months. They featured an area of corals that turned bright purple colors that have never been seen before. This was because the coral was producing its own sunscreen of sorts to try to protect itself from the changes in the water around it. 

What is coral bleaching?

Coral bleaching is essentially coral death. As their environment changes they react by expelling their zooxanthellae, once they do this they can no longer rely on that food source. They is why it is called coral beaching, they lose their beautiful colors and eventually die. 

The ocean as a whole helps regulate our planet, without a healthy ocean we don't have a healthy planet. It is important to protect our home, and now with today's technology we are able to identify the sources of a lot of problems. Small changes like being more conscious about the products you use can make a big difference! 

SUR is getting ready to launch our new tinted zinc-based sunscreen. Zinc and other mineral based sunscreens are great alternatives because they don't put our health or the environments at risk! Stay tuned :) 



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