What is Coral Bleaching?

Over the past few decades, coral reefs across the planet have been placed under increasing amounts of stress. From climate change to sun overexposure to pollution to disease, our reefs are at a tipping point. Once bright and vibrant corals turned to lifeless shades of whites and browns. Color departing the reefs is due to the algae—called zooxanthellae—leaving their homes due to unsuitable living conditions. Under healthy conditions, the coral and algae live in a mutually beneficial relationship and help each other to survive. 

Bleaching occurs when the algae is expelled from the tissues of coral due to stress. If the stress event lasts too long, the algae will not be allowed to return, and the coral will die. Our planet is experiencing the longest bleaching event in history, and scientists indicate no evidence that it will end soon. Even though reefs occupy just 1% of marine environment, they play home to a quarter of the world’s marine species. With coral reefs dying off, this will set off a domino effect through other species.

Sunscreen Pollution

Although addressing climate change through policy is essential to save our reefs, we can all help to alleviate some stress directed towards coral reefs. Contributing to this coral crisis is something we use every day: sunscreen. It is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen pollution wash into oceans each year. Much of this is concentrated in fragile, yet popular diving, snorkeling, and swimming locations. Although this burden should indeed fall upon companies to eliminate these potent chemicals, we do not have policy framework in the U.S. that says such. Instead, consumers must choose sunscreens without harmful chemicals.

Harmful chemicals in sunscreen are absorbed by coral, causing stress. Exposure to these chemicals impact coral reproduction, change growth cycles, and damage DNA, which all eventually lead to bleaching. There are some proactive options that we can all purchase to help the situation. Some areas have even banned sunscreens containing these pollutants. Hawaii became the first state to ban sunscreen with oxybenzone and octinoxate back in 2018. Key West, Flordia has also voted to push legislation forward banning these chemicals in 2021.

Safe Consumer Purchasing

Just because sunscreen is labeled “reef safe,” does not mean you are in the clear. The federal government does require sunscreen claims to be true; however, there is no commonly agreed upon definition for “reef safe”—meaning this term is not strictly regulated by the government. And no sunscreen has been proven to be completely reef safe, but there are some formulas that are “reef-safer” than others. This typically means selecting mineral sunscreens with zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide, rather than chemical sunscreens. The top one or two ingredients should be non-nano zinc and non-nano titanium dioxide. Choose lotion instead of spray, since excess spray will land on the sand and make it to the oceans. Look to be sure it does not contain: 

  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • Octocrylene
  • Homosalate
  • Octisalate
  • Triclosan
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • PABA (para-aminobenzoic acid)
  • Camphor
  • Microplastics or beads
  • Parabens—they will not be directly listed. If there is some sort of aloe or plant component, then they typically need a preservative to keep it fresh
  • Triclosan
  • Any nanoparticles or “nano-sized” zinc oxide or titanium dioxide—if the bottle doesn’t explicitly say no “micro-sized” or “non-nano” and it can rub in, it’s probably nano-sized). Nanoparticles are the size that is ingested by corals.

This is a big ask on consumers to research which brands are “reef-safer.” Our top picks are Hippo Sweat, Surfer’s Barrier Stick by Avasol, and Manda. Or check out some other brands like, 

(From Save the Reef)


And we can tell you to also avoid typical household names like Tropicana, Banana Boat, and Coppertone by all means possible. 

(From Save the Reef)


Our collections are inspired by and for our oceans, so it is one of our missions as a company to care for these waters. Thanks for staying up-to-date and making conscious decisions to save our planet!

Continuously Questioning the Norm,

eM and the eMpulse team 

June 18, 2021 — Kristy Karrer