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Reef-Safe Sunscreen: How to Protect Yourself and the Reefs

Whether you enjoy admiring coral reefs from afar or getting up close and personal by scuba diving or snorkeling, we can all agree that coral reefs are one of the most beautiful and unique ecosystems on our planet. But did you know that your sunscreen could be harming coral reefs? Read on to learn more about coral reefs in Jamaica and what you can do to help protect this precious and delicate ecosystem.


  • What are Coral Reefs?

  • Coral Reefs in Jamaica

  • Coral Bleaching and Death

  • Non-biodegradable Sunscreen – A Little-Known Threat to Coral Reefs

  • One Way You Can Help: Reef-Safe Sunscreen

  • Reef-Safe Sunscreen Recommendations

  • Enjoy Your Vacation Without Worrying About the Reefs

  • Resources for Further Reading

What are Coral Reefs?

Although coral

reefs may look like beautiful piles of rocks, coral is actually alive. Corals are related to sea anemones and jellyfish and share the same simple polyp structure. A polyp is a member of the phylum Cnidaria and is distinguished from other animals by their stingers, specialized stinging cells (nematocysts) which incapacitate and capture prey. Coral polyps are shaped similarly to a tin can with one open end where its mouth is located. The mouth of a coral polyp is surrounded by a ring of tentacles which have stinging cells. Unlike sea anemones, corals create a protective mineral skeleton – the beautiful reef that we see.

In this close up image of a polyp, you can clearly see the zooxanthellae


(pronounced zo-o-zan-THELL-ee) are single-celled algae that live in shallow warm water and photosynthesize energy from the sun and live inside corals found in shallow water in a symbiotic relationship. The zooxanthellae serve as an additional source of energy for the coral. The green, brown, and reddish colors we see in corals actually comes from the zooxanthellae, while the purple, blue, and mauve colors come from the corals.

Individual coral polyps are usually less than half an inch (1.5 cm) in diameter. Corals are colonial and live in huge groups, sometimes in mounds bigger than a small car. Reefs are composed of many different coral colonies which occur when corals grow in shallow water close to the shores of islands or continents. Corals grow very slowly. The fastest corals expand at a rate of about 6 inches (15 cm) per year. Corals are also very long-lived, surviving for decades or centuries. Some deep-sea coral colonies are thought to have lived for more than 4,000 years.

Coral reproduces both asexually and sexually. In asexual reproduction, a coral essentially creates a clone of itself by splitting into two when it reaches a certain size. Corals which produce sexually create a free-swimming larva which will eventually settle in a few hours or weeks and become a polyp.

Some corals are found in tropical waters around the equator, while others are found in the cold, dark water at depths of 20,000 feet (6,000 m). While coral reefs only cover less than one percent of the earth’s surface and less than two percent of the ocean floor, one-quarter of all ocean species depend on coral reefs to survive. Fish worms, snails, and sea stars eat coral polyps. Crabs and shrimp live within the branches of corals and defend corals from predators and competitors, such as other nematocysts which eat the same food.

Coral Reefs in Jamaica

Jamaica is the third largest Caribbean island and has over 1,000 km2 of shallow water reef area on the north, east, and south coast. Over 2 million people visit Jamaica annually and many of them visit the beach and reefs during their stay.

If you visit us here at Anticipation Villa, you will have boundless opportunities to see a coral reef up close and personal through the Tryall Club. There is a coral reef just offshore which guests can visit when they snorkel or scuba dive. A full PADI scuba diving program is available including open water certification as well as advanced open water certification. Rates for a 1 tank dive start from US $60 per person and a double tank at US $90. Guests can book a private 1.5 hour long snorkeling tour for 1 to 4 people, priced at US $240. For those who prefer to remain dry, the Tryall Club offers a complimentary glass-bottom boat ride daily at 10:00 AM. Guests can also book private glass bottom boat trips, priced at US $120 for 30 minutes.

To read more about opportunities to visit coral reefs at the Tryall Club, please click here.

Coral Bleaching

When corals are stressed by changes in conditions such as temperature, light, or nutrients, they expel the symbiotic algae living in their tissues, causing them to turn completely white. These corals are not yet dead and may survive a bleaching event, but they are under more stress and may die.

Non-biodegradable Sunscreen – A Little-Known Threat to Coral Reefs

There are many threats to coral reefs, including damage caused by hurricanes, pollution from agricultural runoff and sewage, overfishing, and climate change. Increasing sea temperatures also cause coral bleaching. In 2005, high sea temperatures caused up to 95% of Jamaican corals to bleach and 50% of corals that bleached died.

One little known threat to coral reefs is non-biodegradable sunscreen. The chemicals from sunscreen that wash off while swimming or in the shower and travel through the sewage systems are “bigger than climate change” in causing damage to reefs, according to the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory. A 2008 study, published by the Environmental Health Perspectives, estimated that between 16,000 and 25,000 tons of sunscreen is used annually in tropical countries. Further, at least 25% of the sunscreen applies is washed off during swimming and bathing, meaning that between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen released in reef areas per year. Ultimately, the study concluded that up to 10% of the world’s reefs are potentially threatened by sunscreen-induced bleaching.

The 2008 study found that that the same chemicals that protect us from skin cancer has a rapid and disastrous impact on marine life. In samplings where researchers exposed corals to different types of sunscreen, small amounts of sunscreen resulted in complete bleaching of corals within 96 hours. The chemicals in sunscreen also seemed to harm the zooxanthellae that were released as a result of coral bleaching. Microscopic analysis of the zooxanthellae showed a loss in photosynthetic pigments and membrane integrity. Distressingly, the study also showed that the effects of sunscreen on corals worsened with increased water temperatures.

In addition to causing coral bleaching and harming zooxanthellae, the 2008 study also found that many chemicals found in sunscreen can increase the number of viruses found in the water. After carefully washing corals and incubating them in water which was 100% free of viruses, the number of viruses surrounding corals that were introduced to sunscreen was 15 times greater than controls. Researchers concluded that the viruses were released from the coral themselves. While you might think that the viruses are what kills the corals, these viruses are in fact critical to the health of the zooxanthellae and thus the coral themselves. The viruses contribute to population dynamics and community diversity, contribute to horizontal gene transfer in influence the pathways of energy and material flow in marine ecosystems.

The oils and chemicals from sunscreen when we swim or bathe are scientifically proven to harm coral reefs. What can we do to help protect this precious ecosystem?

One Way You Can Help: Reef-Safe Sunscreen

Some might think that if sunscreen is harming the reefs, then why don’t we stop using sunscreen? Unfortunately, it’s not that easy. Everyone needs to use sunscreen to protect themselves from sunburn and skin cancer. It’s a common misconception that only Caucasian people need to use sunscreen to prevent sunburns. This is not only untrue but also extremely dangerous since anyone can get skin cancer from exposure to UV rays. So, if you can’t safely ditch sunscreen, then what should you do?

The solution is switching to biodegradable sunscreen. These sunscreens lack the harmful chemicals found in others sunscreens and contain ingredients which will breakdown naturally.

The chemicals to avoid specifically are:

  • Oxybenzone

  • Octinoxate

  • PABA

  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor

  • Butylparaben

These chemicals are considered safe:

  • Zinc oxide

  • Titanium dioxide

Another solution is investing in sun protection clothing. Companies like Patagonia, Coolibar, and REI have created clothing lines rated with UPF, or Ultraviolet Protection Factor. The only downside to using sun protection clothing is that, unlike sunscreen, clothing doesn’t cover 100% of the sun’s surface. Many reef specialists recommend using a combination of protective clothing and sunscreen to effectively cover your whole body while also reducing the amount of sunscreen you use.

Many popular tropical vacations spots are taking coral reef protection into their own hands. Hawai’i, for example, proposed a law which bans the use of all sunscreens that use oxybenzone on its beaches. Aqua-Aston Hospitality, which manages resorts in Hawai’i, Florida, Lake Tahoe, and Costa Rica, distribute information on biodegradable sunscreen and provide samples for their guests. In Mexico, many popular snorkeling spots such as Zel-Há on the Riviera Maya and Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park in Cozumel ban the use of non-biodegradable sunscreen.

Reef-Safe Sunscreen Recommendations

We took some time to compile great, budget-friendly, reef-safe sunscreen options. Unfortunately, no major sunscreen brands, like Coppertone or Banana Boat provide a biodegradable option at this time. Check it out!

  • Badger is a family-operated, American company that is reef safe, hypoallergenic and cruelty free! They make other products besides sunscreen, such as moisturizers, hair care products and even extra virgin olive oil. You can buy their sunscreen directly from their website, or on Amazon.

  • Raw Elements is dedicated to protecting coral reefs, their products are also organic and non-GMO! Check out their selection on their website or find it on Amazon.

  • All Good makes healing products from nature. In addition to reef-safe sunscreen, they sell lip balm, body lotion, and more!

  • Tropical Sands (formerly MexiTan) is specifically engineered for use on Mexican coral reefs.

  • Caribbean Sol is owned and operated out of Orlando, FL and uses all-natural and offers other products besides sunscreen, including sunburn relief and dog shampoo!

  • Lure Lux is an organic, natural biodegradable sunscreen sold on Amazon.

  • UV Natural is ranked #1 by the Environmental Working Group.

  • Babo Botanicals uses a zinc formula is ocean-safe and effectively protects your skin from sunburn. This sunscreen is also sulfate-, paraben-, phthalate-, fragrance-, and dye-free.

This list is not exhaustive, but we hope this is enough to get you started. There are many biodegradable options out there. Stock up before your next trip to the beach!

Enjoy Your Vacation Without Worrying About the Reefs

Although it might be shocking to learn that the sunscreen you have been using might be harming one of our most precious ecosystems, it is reassuring to know that you can easily switch to a less harmful product! If you love coral reefs as much as we do, we hope you will not only consider using biodegradable sunscreen but will also consider booking your next vacation with us! You can easily visit a beautiful coral reef right offshore while staying in absolute comfort and luxury at Anticipation Villa. Anticipate your escape!

Resources for Further Reading

“Protect Land + Sea Certification” Haereticus Environmental Laboratory.

Glusac, Elaine. “Most Sunscreens Can Harm Coral Reefs. What Should Travelers Do?” New York Times. Feb. 19, 2018.

“Jamaica.” Australia Caribbean Coral Reef Collaboration.

Charpentier, Will. “Coral Reefs in Jamaica.” Mar 15, 2018.

“Corals and Coral Reefs.” Smithsonian Institution: Ocean.

“What is coral bleaching.” National Ocean Service.

Danovaro, Roberto, et. al. “Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections.” Jan. 3, 2008. doi: 10.1289/ehp.10966.

Coral Restoration Foundation.

#sunscreen #coralreefs #environmentalism #beach #TryallClub #Snorkeling #ScubaDiving #Jamaica #MontegoBay

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