Since then, the US Virgin Islands and the island city of Key West in Florida have followed in Hawaii’s footsteps with similar bans. But it was the Pacific archipelago of Palau, which prides itself on being a “pristine paradise” for divers, that set the precedent in 2020 when it became the first country to ban “reef toxic” sunscreen.
“This is a big issue for reef environments that rely on tourism and heavy people traffic,” says Craig Leeson, who directed the documentary A Plastic Ocean.
It’s estimated that up to 6,000 tonnes of sunscreen wash into the world’s coral reefs each year, with much of that concentrated in popular diving and snorkelling sites, of which Asia boasts some of the best and most sought-after by travellers.
So in demand are certain Asian destinations that popular islands, including Boracay in the Philippines, and Maya Bay on Phi Phi Island of The Beach fame in Thailand, made headlines when they were temporarily closed in an attempt to recover from damage caused by overtourism.
They’ve remained quiet, however, about sunscreen—even though, says Leeson, it has “also become a human health issue, as new studies reveal the toxic nature of some chemicals in sun care products”.
Indeed. If it’s so bad for the environment, why are people putting it on their skin?
“Human health and environmental health are really one and the same,” says Dave Baker, associate professor and coral reef ecologist at the University of Hong Kong. He also does research and development for Archireef, which combines marine biology, architectural design and 3D printing to produce artificial coral reefs.
“We aspire to engineer new habitats for marine life, says Baker. “These kinds of innovations are sexy and buzz-worthy, but they can only ever be a small-scale solution. Although recently, our partners were sharing photos of a demonstration site and found a cuttlefish laying eggs in our reef tiles. It was the coolest thing.”
Baker acknowledges that while the move to ban toxic sunscreen is well-intentioned, it’s merely a small step in the larger fight to save coral reefs, as overfishing, ocean acidification, warming waters and pollution (including fertiliser used on the green at your favourite oceanside golf course) are killing coral reefs around the world. “It’s an issue that’s been contentious for years,” he says.
Still, when it comes to doing better for the environment, and for our health, starting small is better than doing nothing at all. As more of us use SPF in our daily skincare routines, now’s the time to start thinking about what’s going on our skin and into our oceans.
In the meantime, here are some brands that have banned the use of oxybenzone or octinoxate, so you can use them safely.
Designing products that are “kind to the person using it as well as the environment it’s being used in”, according to founder Katonya B Breaux, Unsun has brought new meaning to broad spectrum, creating a range of tinted face sunscreens with all skin tones in mind. The brand also makes a fabulous SPF 15 hand cream.