Written by Brittany Shenk

Sunscreen Mindfulness to Save Our Coral Reefs

My momma moved to Hawai’i about five years ago, which means I’ve been fortunate enough to spend a fair amount of time on the islands. Last year, I spent three wonderful months working in Hawai’i bouncing from organic farms to beachside hostels, soaking up the sun, sand, and sea. I always feel welcomed home upon every arrival, and an undeniable sense of emptiness when I board a flight back to Oregon.

Without diving too deeply into the intricate details, this past week has been one of the most hectic weeks of my life, resulting in my future plans dissipating into the air. I somehow ended up back in Oregon holding a globe in my hands, wondering where to go next. I turned inward to listen to my soul, and heard Hawaii softly whispering to me to return home.

My step-dad, Dr. Mark Hixon, is a well known marine biologist and has been researching and studying coral reefs his entire life. For years now, he’s been encouraging our family and friends to use reef-safe sunscreens, due to the impact that the chemicals in most sunscreens have on our beloved oceans. I do what I can to limit my impact on the planet, but without his knowledge and passion for coral reef health, I may have completely overlooked my sunscreen usage as a hazard for marine life.

According to the Maui Nui Marine Resource Council, two chemicals commonly found in sunscreen, oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3, BP-3) and octinoxate (Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate), cause serious damage to coral reefs. Scientific testing has shown that these two chemicals stunt baby corals, cause coral bleaching, are toxic to many marine animals, and can also be an endocrine disruptor for many organisms.

An estimated 25 to 60 million bottles worth of sunscreen chemicals wash off into coral reef areas each year. About 25 percent of sunscreen applied to the skin is released into the water within 20 minutes of submersion. When we shower, these chemicals wash off our skin and can pollute waste water that ends up in the ocean as well.”

Environmental Working Group

While sitting on my flight back to Hawai’i yesterday, I started feeling overwhelmed again, thinking about all the ways in which we humans impact the planet, and what I, as an individual, could do to create meaningful, tangible changes. As one person, the idea of saving Momma Earth from distress wares on my energy field; as there are just too many issues to tackle alone.

My thoughts were interrupted by a radiant flight attendant with a plumeria flower pinned in her hair, making one final announcement, as the islands came into view:

“Hawai’i is home to beautiful coral reefs, many that are available for people to visit and explore while on the island. We care deeply about the health and longevity of our coral reefs, so, we would like to ask you all to please be aware of the sunscreen you’re using while swimming in our oceans. Many sunscreens have chemicals that harm our reefs, so your flight attendants will be coming around with samples of reef-safe sunscreen for you to try. We will be landing in Honolulu shortly. Mahalo.”

I realize there may be incentives for the airline promoting a product during a flight, but that’s beside the point. The fact that they are promoting an eco-friendly, reef-safe product during a flight was enough to shake me out of the defeated fog I was sitting in. As the flight attendant passed my row, I accepted a sample of Raw Elements sunscreen from her and was pleasantly surprised with the paper-based packaging. I flipped over the packet to read the ingredients: Certified Natural Zinc Oxide, Certified Organic Beeswax, Certified Organic Black Tea, Certified Natural Candelilla Wax, Certified Organic Cocoa Butter, Certified Organic Coffee, Certified Organic Green Tea, Certified Organic Hemp Seed Oil, Certified Natural Mango Butter, Certified Organic Rosemary Oil, Certified Organic Sunflower, Certified Natural Tocopherol (Vitamin E) Soy Free

Quick shout out to Beck at Wild Spirit Naturally, a guest from one of our podcast episodes a few weeks ago. Her advice about natural skin care products has made a difference in how I care for my body, and her voice echoed in my mind: If you wouldn’t put it in your mouth, don’t put it on your skin. 

I could definitely eat every ingredient in this sunscreen.

I was reinspired after this announcement. This is the way the world is moving. We are shifting from auto-pilot to conscious-consumers, even if the shift is happening more slowly than I would like. We have innovative companies creating real solutions, and other companies doing their part to promote them.

So, thank you, Hawaiian Airlines, for becoming a part of the movement and being vocal about protecting our marine life. Thank you for reminding me to be optimistic in this uphill battle, and helping me see that my efforts can make a difference.