May 10, 2010

Why Biodegradable Sunscreen?

Everyone knows that you should reapply sunscreen after leaving the waters. If we didn't, then we'd soon be burning in the fierce sunshine and we'd spend the rest of our vacation suffering in the shade. However, have you ever stopped to wonder where the sunscreen went that you applied before you started swimming? The answer is simple. It washed off you and is now in the water.

The Polytechnic University of Marche, in Italy, researched the issue and learned that up to 6000 metric tons of sunscreen every year is settling onto the ocean beds. This wouldn't be such a problem, if it wasn't for the chemical reaction between the ingredients of sunscreen and the algae viruses on coral reefs. If this occurs then a coral reef could be completely killed within four days.

Damaged Coral Reef

Many resorts and companies around the Yucatán Peninsula have a policy of only allowing biodegradable sunscreen in their waters. Some operators will simply confiscate non-biodegradable products upon sight, whilst selling the biodegradable sort behind their counters. This is naturally more expensive and has led some tourists to scream, 'scam!' The more smugly selfish and ignorant even resort to lathering themselves in the destructive brands before they leave their hotels rooms, so that no-one can check whether it was biogradable or not. They then set off to potentially destroy the coral reefs, whilst feeling very proud that they saved themselves $9 USD.

The harmful chemicals are familiar to most popular sunscreen brands. They are PABA, octinoxate, oxybenzone, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, oils, chemicals or the preservative butylparaben. All of these are damaging to the coral reefs. Even a small amount can react with the algae. This raises the odds to it being 15 times more likely that a virus will develop and, if that happens, then the coral will bleach and die. A coral reef risks contamination every single time someone swims in ordinary sunscreen. It's a timebomb waiting to go off.

Since 1968, The University of North Carolina has been conducting long term studies. Their conclusions are startling. 75% of the world's coral reefs are in the Indo-Pacific region, where they are dying off at a rate of 1% a year. That's nearly 600 square miles (1,553 square kilometers) of reef disappearing annually. In Australia, the Great Barrier Reef was covered in tethered plantoons (huge canopies) for two years, between 2004-6, to protect it. As the results were 'encouraging', the authorities are now considering plans for permanent covers. In the Caribbean though, where the local economy relies so heavily on tourism, the situation has gone critical. They daren't cover their coral reefs, when so many people come specifically to see it; while swimmers are contributing to higher concentrations of sunscreen in the water. The best that is currently being done are attempts to promote biodegradable sunscreen in the oceans, lagoons and cenotes.

Vibrant Coral Reef

Coral reefs are very pretty to look at. Most people who go snorkeling or diving are going to see the pretty reefs. However, there is much more to them than that. Coral reefs are often referred to as the rainforests of the ocean. Their biodiversity keeps everything ticking over nicely. Their presense controls the amount of carbon dioxide in the world's oceans. The oceans are currently the greatest sink of carbon dioxide that we have. The seas pull it from the air and store it there. However, in tropical waters, the opposite can be true. If the oceans become too saturated, then they start to release carbon dioxide into the air.

The coral helps to minimalise this. Without the coral reefs, you would be breathing in great lungfuls of carbon dioxide throughout the Yucatán Peninsula. The reefs also provide homes for many different species of marine life, which would simply become extinct without them. Many of these fish are caught to feed human beings and yes, they are covered in your sunscreen at the time too. Finally, reflect upon why coral reefs are often called 'barrier reefs'. It is because they stand between the bulk of the ocean and the coastlines; they slow the water down so that coastal towns aren't inundated.

In short, using ordinary sunscreen whilst swimming in the sea is the equivalent to leaving unattended open fires in the Californian forests or the grasslands of Western Canada. Yes, it might be ok. It might... Alternatively, you could just use biodegradeable sunscreen, which has none of the harmful chemicals, thus protecting both your sensitive skin and the coral reefs.

Biodegradable Sunscreen brands: BATAB, Cactus Juice, Caribbean Solutions, KissMyFace, MexiTan, Smartshield, Soleo Organics and UV Natural. They will probably be cheaper if you buy them on-line before you leave home, than if you have to make a desperate purchase in order to be allowed on a Cancún snorkeling trip.


  1. I will like to make a diference betwen biodegradability and Non contaminated, becasue there are sometngs that are boidegradable but still contaminating, such as human waste. So it happens also with sunscreens, there are some of the biodegradable but still contaminating. So please be sure there are biodegradable and Non contaminated. You mention some active ingredients, those are the contaminating ingredients.


  2. Thank you very much, A Mier, for your comment. I see your point!

    So even if the sunscreen says 'biodegradable', we should still check the ingredients for contaminating substances? If any of the below are listed, then we shouldn't use that sunscreen in the ocean:

    PABA, octinoxate, oxybenzone, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, oils, chemicals or the preservative butylparaben.

  3. This is something I had no idea it was hapening, and it's quite horrible. I'll try to find a biodegradable sunscreen the next time I go to the beach (if i ever do).
    Thank you!


  4. Thank you, Silvia! Hopefully the word will soon be out and we'll all be on the biodegradable sunscreen.

  5. Oh please. Don't be so naive.

    The amount of "damage" done by people wearing non-biodegradable sunscreen is about as much as a bunch of people peeing in a pool.

    After all these years, it's all of a sudden such a terrible thing?

  6. Thank you for your comment. However, I would like to respectfully suggest that I'm not being naive here.

    If the threat was so negligible, then why would the policy be so strictly enforced in Mexico? Why would so many agencies around the world be researching it and acting upon it?

    It is an issue that the National Geographic found convincing enough to run an article on. That may be read on-line here.

    The current thinking (and I'm a travel writer, not a marine biologist) is that up to 10% of the world's coral has been damaged by sunscreen erosion. That makes it slightly more dangerous than the ammonia amassed by 'a bunch of people peeing in a pool'.

    After all these years, it's suddenly a terrible thing because we now know about it. The findings were released in 2008. Before that, no-one had a clue what was killing the coral.


HostGator review