Travel is amazing and like you’ve probably noticed we love to travel. We realise that travel puts a lot of strain on the environment, and that we only have one Earth. We truly believe it is important to be informed and responsible travellers and consumers so that our most beloved thing to do is also done taking responsibility while teaching our daughter how to care for our only home. But how can you help save the ocean in your next vacation?
How does my travel affect the ocean?
There are a number of activities that we do that damage the oceans, many of them that are difficult to influence and do something about as individuals, like overfishing or large corporations dumping their waste into the ocean. But there are also things that we do as individuals that are harmful and that we can actually simply stop doing today. You too can help save the ocean in your next vacation!
One very simple thing that you can do the next time you’re at the beach or a lake is to use marine safe sunscreen. Read on to understand how your sunscreen can be harmful for the marine ecosystems and what you can do to save the ocean in your next vacation.
Sunscreen ingredients and how they hurt the ocean
We don’t know with certainty the amount of sunscreen components that is released into the ocean every year but there are estimates that up to 6000 tons of sunscreen are released off people into the ocean every year, (other studies estimate as much as 20K tons). And what is the big deal about this you may say? Well the problem is that not all ingredients are safe and some can seriously harm coral reefs and marine life.
Some tests have been done to understand what components are hurting coral reefs and it has been found that butylparaben, ethylhexyl, methoxycinnamate and oxybenzone cause fast and complete bleaching of coral reefs even in very low concentrations. The effect was even faster in higher water temperatures.
What is the big deal with coral bleaching?
When a coral bleaches it releases all the algae that is attached to it, turning it completely white. That doesn’t kill the coral in and of itself but it makes it more vulnerable to die since it has lost its main source of food and is more susceptible to diseases. The problem is obviously not isolated and it has a rippling effect in the entire marine ecosystem, which can have terrible consequences for life on Earth, good enough reason to save the ocean in your next vacation if you ask me.
Are sunscreen ingredients safe for us to use?
There is no doubt that we should protect our skin from harmful UV rays so the solution is by no means to just sit under the sun and hope for the best (it would likely not go very well anyways). But if sunscreen ingredients are so harmful for the ocean and ocean life, are they safe for us to use? Tests have been done by several organisations like the U.S. FDA (Food and Drug Administration) , Danish EPA (Environmental Protection Agency), EWG (Environmental Working Group) to determine the safety of sunscreens and their active ingredients.
From the tests that have been done we know that we don’t know enough to determine that all ingredients are safe, we know that the FDA declared as generally recognised as safe and effective only two of the ingredients that were tested. The Danish EPA concluded that there is not enough information to determine that 16 out of the 19 ingredients they tested didn’t have links to cancer, and some studies also suggest that some ingredients act as hormonal disruptors that may affect thyroid and reproductive hormones. The EWG recommends that we altogether avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone (which is also one of the ingredients that bleaches reefs).
What alternatives do we have?
- Mineral sunscreens
Mineral sunscreens that contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to be a better alternative than their chemical counterparts. Studies have shown that nano particles don’t penetrate the skin in any significant amounts, so they are also potentially less harmful than the components used in chemical sunscreens. However when they are inhaled they can cause lung damage so it is smart to avoid spray sunscreen.
The problem with nano particles of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide is that their effects in the environment and marine ecosystems are still unknown. Many environmental associations agree that we urgently need more testing to weigh the benefits of mineral sunscreens vs their impact on the environment.
- Marine safe sunscreens
There are a number of marine safe sunscreens out in the market. They are specifically marked as oxybenzone free, there are different brands across the globe so the best is simply to google what is available in your market. If you are able to find a marine safe sunscreen that doesn’t use nano particles in it’s formula then extra points for you! (This article refers to 10 of them).
There is also a number of organic sunscreens in the market. They tend to think of the safety of the product on your body, the environment, not be tested on animals and include only non-harmful ingredients. (This article refers to 40 of them).
- Cover yourself (and your kids) with clothes
Technically all clothing protects your skin from the sun. That is why many times babies and kids simply wear light long-sleeved shirts or pants even when it is hot. The length of the clothes will protect their body from harmful sun rays while not making them super hot. I always wear a dress or cover up on top of my swim suit, they sell really pretty ones with long sleeves. Always remember to wear a hat. Protective clothing doesn’t mean you will not need sunscreen at all, but at least you need less of it.
There is also clothing that is labeled UPF (which is the equivalent of SPF but in clothing), especially for your kids’ sensitive skin, this type of clothing is much more effective than regular clothing. A normal cotton t-shirt will filter through about 20% of the UV radiation, while if you buy UPF clothing it can provide as strong protection as sunscreen. Babies younger than 6 months shouldn’t wear sunscreen or be exposed directly to sun rays, if you are going to a sunny place UPF clothes are your safest bet.
Teaching the next generations
Any efforts with regards to climate change and environmental conservation need to be done very consciously and shared openly with our children. Also whatever we do for the sake of the health and wellbeing of our children.
What I have learned through my short 3,5 years of motherhood is that kids understand much more than we normally give them credit for. Julia knows that she needs to wear sunscreen and a hat when we go out in the sun, she knows that the sun is very good for our body but if we expose our skin directly to it it can be very harmful and get burned. Before going out to the beach or pool she is the one to remind everyone they need to put on sunscreen.
I have also shared with her that us humans have done quite bad things to the ocean and the animals that live there. She knows that I buy certain types of sunscreen because they will not damage “Nemo’s home”, she knows that we need to save the ocean. It is all a matter of bringing what we share down to their level, and making them part of our daily conversations. Hopefully like this it will not be such a challenge for the future generations to make sound decisions with regards to the environment and their own well-being
If you want to read more about this topic and learn about the studies that have been done check out the following sources I used to write this blog post.