Biodegradable Sunscreen Protects Coral Reefs

By Sherry Chen ’19

Stop! Put that chemical sunscreen back on the store shelf! Switching to a biodegradable sunscreen not only protects you against ultraviolet light (UV), but also the coral reefs and aquatic ecosystem against harmful substances of chemical sunscreen.

Coral reefs have been endangered by climate changes, pollution, overfishing, and water contamination, which are just a few factors that contribute to their destruction by human activities.

According to CBS News, “Up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen wind up in coral reef areas of the ocean every year, and scientists say that contributes to the ecosystem’s damage.”

Chemical sunscreen consists of some ingredients such as avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and oxybenzone.

“You’re talking about a shot glass in a swimming pool. These are the kinds of levels where things began to have action,” said Biologist Dr. Robert Richmond to CBS News on oxybenzone.

If even a small amount of this chemical is detrimental to the ecosystem, just think about the consequences of 14,000 tons being washed off in the ocean.

According to, “Oxybenzone also exacerbates coral bleaching, a process by which coral reject symbiotic organisms and lose their color.”

This occurs when the reef loses its algae, zooxanthellae, which provides food and pigment for proper growth.

“The algae produce oxygen and help the coral to remove wastes. Most importantly, zooxanthellae supply the coral with glucose, glycerol, and amino acids, which are the products of photosynthesis,” said National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

“The coral uses these products to make proteins, fats, and carbohydrates, and produce calcium carbonate. This is the driving force behind the growth and productivity of coral reefs.”

The polyps eventually get rid of their algae cells when physically stressed, causes a white appearance or lack of pigment. The stress is not just from harmful chemicals, but also from the effects of climate change. Biodegradable sunscreen consists of mineral ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide, that are safe for the ecosystem.

Ms. Kimberly Lau, who teaches Chemistry and AP Environmental Science and coaches the Ocean Science Team, said, “Biodegradable means it will eventually be broken down by a living organism but, it doesn’t break down fast enough for it to have no effect at all.”

Ms. Lau also stated, “The effect is smaller and shorter, but there is still an effect.”

This makes biodegradable sunscreen a safer choice, although it has a small effect on bleaching but less harmful compared to oxybenzone.

Both chemical and mineral sunscreens offer protection from ultraviolet A (UVA), ultraviolet B (UVB), and ultraviolet C (UVC). However, chemical sunscreen is absorbed into the skin and can be harmful, while mineral sunscreen sits on the surface keeping out toxic chemicals.

So why zinc oxide and titanium oxide? According to, Zinc oxide is good for repairing cuts and preventing rashes, and is a good ingredient used in sunscreen.

Titanium oxide commonly found in sunscreen helps reflect UV light however, it doesn’t harm the reefs unlike chemical sunscreen because titanium is a natural element in the earth’s crust according to

The combination of zinc and titanium oxide makes it eco-friendly.

UVA is the longest wavelength that causes signs of aging and wrinkle, while UVB affects the skin’s surface such and can lead to sunburn, redness, and skin cancer. UVC is the shortest wavelength absorbed by the ozone.

Hawaii has considered a ban on chemical sunscreens to preserve the coral reefs. Other places, like Mexico, with large tourist attractions are requiring reef-friendly sunscreen. Coral reefs not only provide food, habitat, and shoreline protection, they also might lead to a new cancer medicine. These are some positive benefits the coral reefs provide which, may no longer be available if the slightest action is not taken to preserve it from harm.

Mrs. Lau said, “About 70 to 80 percent of all of our oxygen on Earth is thanks to marine algae and marine plants. We’re very reliant on their ecosystem without many people really knowing about it.”

Hassan Bukhari ’19 said, “Most people aren’t aware of the damage that are killing the coral reefs which the public should be educated about.”

The lack of awareness and information has been an issue in trying to get people to help preserve the coral reefs.

“Society needs to appreciate the reefs more not just for its beauty, but for their capabilities as well that benefits us,” said Jia Ci Deng ’19.

In the long run, the corals benefit us and the ecosystem, but extinction of it can take those benefits away forever.

“Plastics are also a factor that kills the coral reefs when they ingest microplastic which, interferes with their feeding activity causing starvation,” said Brian Seetoe ’19. “By using biodegradable sunscreen is a small step in fixing the problem which is better than nothing.”

The top choice seller for biodegradable sunscreen is the Alba Botanica, which provides great moisture, is long-lasting, and is 100 percent vegetarian, without white residue.

The second best choice is the Goddess Garden, which is organic and a spray on that lasts a long period of time in the sun. It is also certified as reef safe and 100 percent biodegradable.

Other popular brands are Mexi-Tan, Caribbean Solutions, Nature’s Gate, Kiss My Face, and Hawaiian Tropical biodegradable lotions.

Although biodegradable sunscreen might be a little more pricey compared to chemical sunscreen, since more zinc oxide and titanium oxide are needed to get SPF 30, but, nonetheless it has a long shelf life and is worth the extra money.

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