It’s no secret that sunscreen is a must-have on any outdoor vacation to prevent both trip-ruining burns and long-term skin damage. But have you ever thought about what’s in the sunscreen you cover yourself with before a dip at the beach, and how it might be impacting the environment around you as it washes off? A growing field of scientific research shows that chemicals commonly used in sunscreens are contributing to the bleaching of coral reefs, and to an extreme degree in tourist-frequented areas—some in the Caribbean have lost upwards of 90 percent of their total reefs since the 1980s, researchers say, and some sunscreen chemicals can harm other kinds of sea life, too.
While sun-blocking ingredients like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octoerylene have been deemed safe for human use, they have been found to exacerbate the reef bleaching associated with warming ocean temperatures. But the good news is there are comparable alternatives that work just as well to protect you without harming reefs. Non-nano mineral sunscreens (nano minerals can be toxic to invertebrates), which utilize ingredients like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are reef-safe and typically labeled as such. As an added bonus, mineral sunscreens are also usually less-irritating to sensitive skin types, according to the Mayo Clinic. Mineral sunscreens ideal for use in lieu of chemical ones include Attitude’s array of non-nano zinc-oxide options, and for little ones there’s EarthBaby’s titanium-dioxide creams.
More destinations are making an effort to warn swimmers against using reef-harming sunscreens, with some officials even outlawing them from being sold in the area with sunscreen bans for certain products. Here are seven destinations taking that stance in an effort to preserve their reefs and ocean life, and what visitors need to know.
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Beginning on January 1 of this year the state of Hawaii enacted a sunscreen ban on the over-the-counter sale of those containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, and the state has more legislation pending to broaden the list of banned sunscreen ingredients. The law applies primarily to shops selling the products in the state, but visitors can take note by switching to a mineral sunscreen that aligns with the new move if they plan on bringing their own. The law has made Hawaii the first state in the U.S. to pass an official ban on the sale of certain sunscreens.
U.S. Virgin Islands
Hawaii likely drew some inspiration from the U.S. Virgin Islands, which has outright banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone, octoerylene, and octinoxate since March 2020. The island chain does not permit the sale or use of sunscreens containing any of those three ingredients. Its strict stance might have something to do with the fact that the island chain was one subject in a years-long study into the effects of chemical sunscreens on reefs, in which seawater taken from the popular Trunk Bay swimming spot in Virgin Islands National Park was found to have some of the highest concentrations of oxybenzone in the study.
Another Caribbean hotspot for sunblock-slathered tourists, Aruba has outlawed sunscreens containing oxybenzone since July 2020 as part of a broader environmental law banning single-use plastics. The restriction bans the import, sale, and production of sunscreen containing oxybenzone, according to Aruba’s tourism board, which recommends that tourists pack only reef-safe sunscreens if they do not plan on purchasing their SPF on-island.
Key West, Florida
After voting to pass its own sunscreen restrictions back in 2019, the city of Key West was blocked last year by Florida’s governor from barring any sunscreen products. The ordinance passed by Key West and struck down by Governor Ron Desantis aimed to bar the sale and purchase of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. A spokesperson for the city says that effort is still the city’s stance, although it has no current plans to revisit the sunscreen legislation. Still, visitors can align themselves with the city’s quashed efforts by choosing a non-nano mineral sunscreen.
The tiny scuba haven of Bonaire in the Caribbean has restricted the sale of sunscreens containing reef-toxic chemicals since January 2021. The island, which already charges steep environmental fees to divers in an effort to conserve its colorful reefs, now allows only reef-friendly sunscreen to be sold on the island. Tourists are encouraged to only bring biodegradable sunscreens through awareness campaigns by the tourism board as well as dive shops on the island, which offer snorkeling and boating tours in addition to scuba options.
Ecotourism reserves in Mexico
If you plan on visiting Mexico’s natural swimming holes or snorkeling beaches in Cancun, Playa del Carmen, or Cozumel, it’s worth checking if the area or private park bans visitors from using certain sunscreens. Natural water parks like Xcaret and Xel-Ha require visitors to use only mineral sunscreens when swimming in cenotes or subterranean rivers, which connect underground and are home to an abundance of wildlife. The island of Cozumel’s Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park, which is part of an ecological preserve, also only permits reef-safe sunscreens.
While you’re unlikely to be visiting the remote Pacific nation of Palau any time soon due to its border closure amid the coronavirus pandemic, the tiny country has banned all reef-toxic sunscreens since January 2020. The sunscreen ban applies to the sale and use of sunscreens containing 10 chemicals, including oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, and certain parabens (or preservatives).
“Sunscreen Pollution is a symptom of unsustainable tourism. Many places in the world that are popular with tourism are seeing rapid destruction of their wildlife and environment,” the International Coral Reef Initiative has said of Palau’s restrictions. “ By preserving the continuity of their pristine wilderness by managing for sustainable tourism, Palau is setting the standard for protecting one of the world’s greatest natural treasures.”
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