What’s the deal with sunscreen? Is it good? Is it bad? Is it a necessary evil? Are some kinds better than others? Why? How do you know? All very valid — and vital — questions, especially when taking surf lesson on Maui!
This discussion is not always a straightforward one, but it’s necessary to educate yourself when you will be spending time in the ocean. The short answer to the question of whether or not sunscreen is potentially harmful is YES! The compounds found in the sunscreens produced and worn for years are absolutely, 100% toxic to coral reefs. Minute amounts of the chemicals found in sunscreens result in the bleaching of corals. This term ‘bleaching,’ is often talked about and heard in the conversation about coral reef health, but what does it actually mean? Bleached corals have lost a very helpful type of algae that provides both energy and a defense mechanism for the reef. Without it, the coral becomes very weak and susceptible to viruses and elements that can damage the coral heads.
Something to consider and put all of this into perspective is that for about every 10,000 surfers, swimmers, body boarders or snorkelers, nearly 4 kilograms of sunscreen particulates (particularly the chemical oxybenzone) wash into the ocean every day! These particles react to produce hydrogen peroxide — a potent bleaching agent — in levels strong enough to severely degrade marine ecosystems and destroy the beautiful corals reefs of Hawai’i and around the world.
Fortunately, there’s lots of research happening in finding alternatives to traditional sunscreens that can still protect your skin and not impact the waters and reefs in a dangerous way. At Maui Surf Clincs, we offer locally-made, reef-safe sunscreen options and are happy to educate you more on reef health and how to help maintain it.