Ocean Play, the Sustainable Way – the Importance of Using Reef-Safe Sunscreen

The chance to explore the warm, bright blue waters and vibrant coral reefs of Maui is one of the biggest draws for visitors to our island paradise. It’s nothing short of magical to watch colorful reef fish dart amongst the coral heads beneath you while graceful, lumbering green sea turtles meander slowly up from the sea floor to take their gulps of air. When you’re lucky enough to be frolicking in the ocean here, whether you’re snorkeling, diving, surfing, beach-combing, swimming, paddle-boarding, kayaking, or simply floating on your back and watching the world go by, you’re in one of the most relaxing places on Earth. We get so much from the ocean – shouldn’t it be part of our job to make sure we’re taking care of her in return?

Sunscreen, one of the first toiletries many think to pack when traveling to an island, has become a big topic of concern out here in this popular vacation spot. Naturally, sun protection is an important part of taking care of our skin, but many don’t consider that there are plenty more options apart from the typical creams, sprays, and lotions that line the shelves at convenience stores. Did you know that certain ingredients in many of the most common sunscreen brands are actually killing our coral reefs? It’s easy to forget about the products we’re slathering on our bodies when we’re excited to jump in and explore these beautiful underwater places. But oxybenzone and octinoxate are two common active ingredients in sunscreen that can dramatically harm the tiny animals that make up our fragile coral reef ecosystems. Researches are finding that these chemicals can cause coral viruses, which in turn can cause bleaching and polyp death. They’ve even been shown to disrupt the endocrine systems of larger marine creatures, like shrimps and clams.

There is something we can do about it! As visitors to the reef, we can actively adopt a reef-friendly approach to sun protection. We’ve listed some tips below for when you’re considering which from of protection is the best option.

How to choose a reef-friendly sunscreen and be a eco-conscious visitor to the reef:

  • Don’t just look for the term “reef-safe” on the label; this is often a marketing scheme and is not regulated
  • Choose physical sunscreens that are mineral-based – they physically block the sun’s UV rays and do contain reef-harming chemicals
    • Zinc-oxide and titanium dioxide are the common active ingredients in these mineral-based sunscreens
    • Keep in mind that these sunscreens are not mean to absorb fully into the skin because they act as a physical barrier to the sun; you’ll notice physical evidence of the sunscreen even after it’s been properly applied. It’s the latest in eco-friendly fashion, so wear that sunscreen layer with a smile and you’ll be turning heads up and down the beach!
  • Avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate – these are the bad guys, known as endocrine disrupters and proven to harm coral reefs
  • Say goodbye to spray – lotions are the most environmentally friendly
  • Cover up! Go without sunscreen and choose lightweight, long-sleeved layers, hats, and sunglasses. In the water, try a rash guard or thin wetsuit to prevent sunburn and eliminate the need for sunscreen.

Let us know what you’re doing to keep the reef safe during your ocean play – every little effort adds up to make a big difference. Mahalo nui loa!

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