Coral reefs and sunscreen

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Updated on October 25, 2019

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Coral reefs are some of the most dynamic and diverse ecosystems in the world, providing habitat for up to nine million species. They are also vulnerable ecosystems highly sensitive to pollutants, including oxybenzone, which is commonly found in sunscreen. According to a 2015 study, all it takes is one drop for this chemical to begin bleaching, damaging, and eventually killing a coral reef. About 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in coral reefs around the world each year, and most contain oxybenzone. Researchers have even found an uptick in the amount of oxybenzone in areas known to be frequented by tourists, specifically in coral reefs around Hawaii and in the Caribbean.3 Coral reefs face many other challenges to their survival that are not exclusively related to sunscreen, but are related to human activity, such as a warming and acidifying ocean due to climate change and other harmful substances that end up in ocean. President Obama made great strides during his time as president in his efforts to protect coral reefs and marine biodiversity. In August 2016, in celebrating the 100th anniversary of the U.S. National Park Service, he created the world’s largest marine protected area (and actually the world’s largest ecologically protected area in general) by expanding the Papahanaumokuakea Marine National Monument off the Hawaiian Islands to include more than half a million square miles.4 Yet these mea- sures only go so far: coral reefs can be affected by the products that we wear in the water, even if we may not be swimming that close to them. You can also do your part in protecting these fragile ecosystems no matter where you swim or snorkel by avoiding sunscreen with oxybenzone in it. Look for sunscreens that have zinc oxide or titanium oxide instead. These alternatives are just as protective from the sun as oxybenzone. For example, Badger, a healthy body care company, offers zinc oxide sunscreens that are produced with the goal of being safe for coral reefs and other vital ecosystems.

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If you see restaurants, stores, or other types of companies that are incorporating sustainability, consider choosing these options and make your support for sustainability known. It encourages other businesses to become sustainable as well. You may also come across a nonprofit or community organization that you believe is doing valuable work. Why not donate or reach out to see how you can support their efforts? You can consider volunteering, even if it’s only for one day, to give back to the local area you’re visiting.

Carry and use washable, reusable utensils when possible.

Many airlines are now offering passengers the option to purchase carbon offsets when booking a flight, which means you can pay extra to fund a project that reduces GHG emissions, “neutralizing” your flight. Carbon offset projects include supporting forest conservation in California, capturing GHG emissions from landfills in South Carolina, or renewable energy in Texas. Airlines are also taking measures to reduce their own environmental impact such as making planes and fleets more energy efficient and looking for alternative sources of energy.

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Using reusable bags (cloth, paper, or plastic) or hand-carrying items (if you’re only picking up a few things) both are ways to cut down on plastic waste. Many cities have banned plastic bags altogether, and some stores now charge for bags that just a few years ago were free. Even if your city hasn’t made the move on plastic bags yet, you can take matters into your own hands by remembering your reusable bags.

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