Article & Photos By Samantha Whitcraft,
Director of Conservation & Outreach, Sea of Change Foundation Shark and Ray Photos courtesy of Aggressor Liveaboards
As divers, we often spend hours in the strong tropical sun. And, as such, we want to protect ourselves from any damage that exposure could cause. So, what is the best way to do that?
We often turn to lotion or spray sunscreens first because that’s what we learned to use on family vacations. But that’s really not the best choice. Why? First, they don’t provide the level of protect that we seem to assume. In fact, the terms “waterproof” and “sweatproof” are no long allowed by the EPA on product labels because no sun protection product is completely water-proof or sweat-proof, and no product truly “blocks” the sun. Those products claiming to be for in- water and sports activities have label instructions saying to reapply regularly, after swimming, sweating or even toweling off, and most people don’t. The result, unprotected skin. Even the best facial sunscreens find their way into our masks causing stinging eyes which is no fun given that diving is all about seeing or photographing cool critters and amazing wrecks. And, no matter how “water resistant” a sunscreen claims to be, it will wear off in the water leaving behind not only less protected skin, but also a greasy slick in the ocean. One study found that 25 percent of sunscreen applied to the skin is released into the water within only 20 minutes of being in the water. And that fact should be especially important for divers to consider. As divers, we have a responsibility to be good stewards of the oceans where we play and work, especially around fragile and globally imperiled coral reefs.
Scientific studies reveal that select ingredients in most sunscreen are lethal to young corals. The chief culprit isthe common sunscreen ingredient Benzophenone-3 usually listed on the bottle as either BP-3or oxybenzone which is a hormone disruptor. But studies also implicate other sunscreen ingredients as being harmful to corals including butylparaben, octinoxate and a chemical, ominously called simply 4MBC. These sunscreen ingredients are detrimental to corals in that they cause endocrine disruption, DNA damage, promote viruses,and contribute to bleaching. Just as they block the UVrays from divers, they also block them from corals. Corals, with their symbiotic algae, need the energy from the sun to complete photosynthesis, the process that helps feed them. When they are denied sunlight, young corals can starve and die.
Even at very low concentrations, these sunscreen ingredients impact corals. How low? One study found toxicity to corals at concentrations of a mere 62 parts per trillion which is about equivalent to one drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool. That means even if we only use a little sunscreen and stay off the reef, there can still be deadly impacts to corals, and of course, that impact accumulates with additional sunscreen-wearing divers over time. In fact, in 2015, the U.S. National Park Service estimated that, globally, as much as 6,000 tons per year of sunscreen enters the waters around coral reefs. These sunscreen ingredients are already on our reefs. On some of the coral reefs of the Virgin Islands, for example, scientists found concentrations of oxybenzone at levels 4000 times higher than the minimum coral-damaging levels identified in earlier studies. As divers, we spend more time around coral reefs than your average sunbather or beach-goer, so we are on the hook for much of that.
So where does that leave us? Diving often includes a lot of time in the harsh tropical sun on dive decks, on the dock, on beach and even at the surface. And that amount of exposure to the damaging rays of the sun can lead premature aging, severe burns, and eventually skin cancer. There are zinc oxide or titanium dioxide based sunscreens that claim to be “reef safe” or “reef friendly” that eliminate some or all of the reef damaging ingredients listed above, but those claims are not regulated so there is no burden of proof on the manufacturer; divers should read the labels carefully and check the ingredients list. And Divers’ Alert Network (DAN) suggests applying sunscreen only on face, neck, feet and hands to limit the loads entering the water by 90 percent while concentrating protection in areas that divers need it the most.
However, the best solution is really the simplest, physically block the sun. Thatmeans using garments to keep the sun’s rays off our skin completely. A reef-friendly dive bag should include a full wet suit or dive skin with long sleeves and legs – skip the shorty – a long-sleeve rash guard, a wide brim, sturdy hat,good sunglasses, and a neck or face gaiter (sometimes called a fishing face shield). In combination, these items become a diver’s most effective protectionagainst the sun while helping protect our beautiful and sensitive coral reefs.
About Sea of Change
The Sea of Change Foundation funds marine conservation and research initiatives that directly impact the oceans we all love to dive and explore. Their mission is to create positive change for the oceans. Learn more about the Sea of Change Foundation and how you can help make a positive change for our oceans, here: www.seaofchange.com or email firstname.lastname@example.org .
About Samantha Whitcraft
Samantha Whitcraft holds a bachelor in Natural Sciences from Harvard University and earned her masterof Marine Affairs and Policy at theUniversity of Miami›s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science. As a conservation biologist, she has worked with National Geographic, WildAid and local communities to research and develop sustainable ecotourism and “citizen science.” A resident ofFlorida, her fieldwork has takenher to the Amazon, Kiribati, the Bahamas, Fiji, and the Galapagos.