Sustainable sunscreen: what does sun protection have to do with corals?

For decades, applying sunscreen was summer holiday rule number 1 – because UV light causes skin cancer and the radiation is particularly dangerous in water. The problem is: this kind of protection against sunburn endangers marine life, because even waterproof sunscreen is only partially waterproof, which means that several thousand tons of sun cream end up in our oceans every year. And many of its components are extremely toxic to aquatic organisms. The highly sensitive ecosystem of coral reefs is particularly endangered and the public is only gradually becoming aware of this problem.

A threat to human health and the environment

Sunscreen with chemical UV filters work by penetrating the skin (a welcome side effect is that they are absorbed by it very well). They absorb the dangerous UV radiation and convert it into harmless thermal energy. This is very convenient, but it can be harmful to your health: depending on the substances, such chemical UV filters can decompose and cause skin irritation and allergies, and some are even suspected of having a hormonal or carcinogenic effect. Therefore, it is not allowed to use them in natural cosmetics. The number of synthetic UV filters is constantly increasing: octocrylene has established itself on the market, replacing benzophenone-3, which has since been phased out. However, it is also considered a danger to the ecosystem, because the water-insoluble substance is hardly degradable and can therefore accumulate in organisms and on surfaces. By now, some manufacturers use Bemotrizinol, a substance that is considered harmless, at least in humans. However, there are no convincing studies on the effects on marine life.

Turtle and corals
Coral reefs are extremely sensitive ecosystems

There is a lack of comprehensive studies

The logical alternative? Use eco-sunscreen – at least at first glance. They do not contain chemical filters, but work mechanically, reflecting the dangerous UV radiation like tiny mirrors and thus making sure that the radiation cannot even reach our skin. So, instead of being absorbed by the skin, they form a kind of protective layer. The widespread active substances zinc and titanium were regarded as harmless for a long time, at least for humans. In the meantime, however, it has become clear that the nanoparticles they contain also pose a threat to marine life. Up to now, there are not many comprehensive studies on the effects of these frequently used cosmetic ingredients. So there is an urgent need for more research. It is therefore particularly pleasing that the environmental hazard many sunscreens pose is a subject of discussion more and more frequently –thus gradually coming to the attention of the public.

Sunscreen
For decades, applying sunscreen was summer holiday rule number 1

How can we protect ourselves from the sun?

One thing is clear: UV protection is still very important. And the matter of sunscreen is admittedly a difficult one. This makes it all the more important to consider its ingredients – for our own health and for the environment. Especially if you want to swim in the sea, you should check carefully whether your sunscreen contains substances that are proven to be harmful to the environment. It is best not to apply any sunscreen directly before bathing in the sea, not even (supposedly) waterproof cream, but rather reduce the time you spend in the water. The skin has its own way of protecting itself from the sun – depending on the type of your skin it can last between 10 and 30 minutes or more. If you stay in the water for a longer time, for example when snorkeling: put some clothes on. Choosing neoprene and lycra instead of light swimwear at 30 degrees Celsius in the shade may sound strange at first, and tanning fanatics in particular might by appalled. But, hey: the dying of corals and the risk of skin cancer for a flawless tan – is it worth it?

Snorkeler at Gili Lankanfushi
Some hotels provide snorkelers with reef friendly sunscreen © Gili Lankanfushi

Coral-friendly sunscreen

These two Green Pearls® hotels set a good example: in the Maldives and on Koh Samui, sun protection is a must. At the same time, the corals there are an undisputed highlight and snorkeling is very popular. This is a dangerous combination, because snorkelers just have to use sunscreen with the wrong ingredients to endanger the spectacular reefs. That is why Gili Lankanfushi and Tongsai Bay offer their guests a coral-friendly alternative to sunburn and long-sleeved swimwear – with their “Reef safe” sun protection products, which according to the manufacturer are free of harmful substances and the controversial nanoparticles.

Reef friendly sunscreen
Sun-seekers can buy coral-friendly sunscreen at Tongsai Bay © Tongsai Bay