Being surrounded by such beautiful nature and wildlife is a privilege – especially along the Coral Coast, where pristine coastlines, beautiful marine life, and stunning inland views are a part of daily life. However, the actions of locals and visitors can often have a massive impact on the health of this landscape – and so we have to ask ourselves what can be done to minimise our impact on Mother Nature. One of the changes that we can make to help protect coral reefs, such as Ningaloo, is incredibly simple.
Biologists across the globe have identified that certain chemicals found in some sunscreens can be incredibly damaging to delicate reef systems. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are two chemicals typically found in popular sunscreens throughout the world. However, these chemicals can lead to damage such as accelerated coral bleaching and the deformation of juvenile coral, which largely affects the health of coral reefs like Ningaloo Reef, Abrolhos Islands, Muirion Islands and Mackerel Islands.
Of course, especially in Australia, sun protection is incredibly important. With statistics telling us that two out of every three Australians will develop skin cancer in their lifetime, it cannot be ignored that sun protection is incredibly important for Australians and visitors to Australia. Those who visit the Reef need to make sure they have adequate sun protection to avoid sun burn, and protect themselves from harmful UV rays - but this needs to be done in a way that isn’t going to damage our Reef.
Sunscreen pollution is a significant issue worldwide, with up to 14 000 tonnes of sunscreen polluting our oceans each year. Hawaii has gone so far as to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in order to protect their marine life. Australia hasn’t gone this far, but is gradually working toward phasing out these chemicals. In fact, due to allergy related issues, Cancer Council products within Australia no longer contain oxybenzone.
So how can we protect ourselves whilst protecting the reef? Unfortunately, there are no sunscreens that are completely harmless to coral reefs, but there are steps you can take to reduce your impact on the marine environment.
1. Choose the Right Sunscreen
Ideally you should avoid using sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Sunscreens containing titanium dioxide or zinc oxide provide great sun protection to humans, and have less of an impact on coral reefs. Each year, the Haeriticus Environmental Lab publishes a list of sunscreens that are regarded as environmentally friendly – this is a useful tool when deciding which sunscreen you should use.
2. Protect your Skin in other ways
Apart from sunscreen, biologists and dermatologists alike suggest that visitors cover up the skin to reduce the amount of sunscreen required. Rashies (especially long-sleeved), board shorts and wetsuits are all great options when in the water. Light-weight cotton shirts are also fantastic for when you're out of the water, as these will protect your skin whilst ensuring you don't overheat.
3. Don't Spray
Whilst they may be convenient, spray-on sunscreens can often be even worse for our oceans than lotions. When using sprays, a significant amount of residue ends up on the sand, which will eventually make its way into the water. Lotions and creams stick to your skin, meaning that they are less pollutive.
By being conscious of the chemicals we are putting into the water, and by covering up with clothing, we can protect ourselves and the beautiful reefs throughout the world. And when you think about it, this is a pretty small price to pay for the beauty that the reefs provide!
This useful infographic helps to break down how you can help our reef: