For Autumn Blum, a US cosmetic chemist and certified diver, it all began with a dive in Palau, an island in the Pacific Ocean, which happens to have one of the most beautiful and endangered coral reefs in the world. On her ascent, Blum thought she saw a rainbow, but as she got closer she realised it was an oil sheen from sunscreen coming off a group of snorkellers. "I knew then this was bad news to see those chemicals going directly into a pristine ecosystem," she says.
For most of us, that stark realisation might have ended there, but following her trip, and a fruitless search for products that wouldn't harm the coral (which revealed a surprising amount of sunscreens labelled "reef-safe" which contained ingredients which were not, in fact, safe at all), Blum took matters into her own hands and created Stream2Sea, a line of biodegradable sunscreens, hair and body care.
In fact, those snorkellers and their sunscreen rainbow is fairly typical of a growing eco-problem hitting our oceans. According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG), a US non-profit environmental and health group, it is estimated up to 60 million bottles' worth of sunscreen chemicals wash off into coral reefs each year and 25 per cent of sunscreen applied to the skin is released into the water within 20 minutes of submersion. "It's the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens that are the most problematic," says Ian Taylor, cosmetic scientist at Green People, an organic and eco-conscious lifestyle brand born out of founder Charlotte Vøhtz’s frustrations at not being able to find natural products for her daughter who suffered from allergies. "Non-natural formulations use toxic chemical filters like oxybenzone and octinoxate which, while safe for humans, is the most harmful to marine life." Oxybenzone, which can be found in some 3,500 sunscreens worldwide, is a chemical that helps filter out skin-damaging UV rays and, according to the EWG, is so toxic to coral that it can be lethal in very small doses – one drop is enough to kill young coral before it's able to mature and replenish the reefs. With Hawaii announcing in July a complete ban on the sale of sunscreens containing these chemicals, is saving the reef and our oceans as simple as switching to an eco-friendly sunscreen?
Sadly, it's not that straightforward. As it stands there are currently no sustainably-sourced sun filters – all of them, whether they are mineral (sunscreens that sit on your skin and make you look ash-white but contain less actives) or chemical (the ones that soak into skin but have a long list of actives and synthetic ingredients) are man-made, so while an eco-friendly sunscreen will be made up of both natural and organic ingredients, it may still contain a combination of mineral and chemical filters.
"But this is not necessarily a bad thing," says Taylor. "There are chemical filters which are known to be kind to the environment and still offer medium to high-factor UVA and UVB sun protection, and are free from parabens, silicone and synthetic fragrance." (Green People's sunscreen is approved by PETA, and with a donation of 30p made to the Marine Conservation Society on every full-size bottle of SPF30, is both a sensible and altruistic purchase.) But what it does mean is that we need to be extra careful when reading labels in order to find the right balance of ingredients that are both marine- and skin-safe.
All of which begs the question – can a "natural" sunscreen offer the same degree of protection to skin as more toxic alternatives? According to the experts, eco-friendly sunscreens are just as effective as conventional ones. And if you don't want to believe them, rest assured they're subjected to the same rigorous testing and legal requirements of "normal" brands. "With any sun care, by EU law you have to use approved sun filters and be able to prove your SPF rating (which only covers UVB rays) and minimum UVA coverage to claim 'broad spectrum' for the finished product," says Allard Marx, founder of Aethic, an eco-compatible and coral-friendly skincare brand. It's a similar situation in the US, where the federal government requires stringent, third-party testing to ensure that all sunscreens, natural and conventional, meet the standards for sun protection. As for how safe your sunscreen is in the water, Marx uses a novel way to test out effectiveness. "We use surfers, championship kite boarders, the New Zealand surfing team and America's Cup contenders to really test out our formulations under extreme conditions."
And how can we be sure it's equally safe to marine life and not just an unsubstantiated marketing claim? "We do aquatic toxicity testing on all our products using fresh- and salt-water fish and vulnerable coral larva," says Blum. However, she warns, not all brands are as committed as Stream2Sea, with many jumping on the eco-friendly and reef-safe bandwagon without the right credentials. "Reef-friendly, natural and eco-friendly are not government-regulated terms, so manufacturers can label anything they want," says Blum. "Remember the ‘green' washing of the 1990s? Reef-safe is becoming the next marketing deception."
The key is to know your labels. The Haereticus Environmental Laboratory is a great reference point and has a comprehensive list of harmful ingredients, including the key players to avoid such as oxybenzone and octinoxate. And with worldwide focus currently on the devastating effect plastic is having on our oceans, coral-conscious brands are looking at sustainability at all phases of the supply chain. "Stream2Skin tubes are made with sugar-cane resin and larger bottles are made from recycled milk jugs," says Blum, while Green People uses recyclable packaging made from carbon and hydrogen.
As for the state of the oceans today, Marx says, "While coral covers only one per cent of the ocean bed, it sustains 30 per cent of ocean life and produces huge amounts of the oxygen that human life depends on to survive, which really does put it all in perspective. Anywhere that has high concentrations of tourism and coral is affected – Hawaii, Mexico, the Great Barrier Reef, the Coral Triangle in Indonesia, Malaysia and the Red Sea. The problem is just going to get bigger if we don't start doing something about it now."
If in doubt, look for a sun cream that is supported by the Marine Conservation Society, the only national UK charity dedicated to the protection of our seas. "We can't undo the damage that's been caused already – worryingly, estimates suggest that a fifth of the world's coral supply has died since 2015 – but by switching to a non-toxic sun lotion you can help prevent further damage," says Taylor.