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What Zombie Corals are Showing Us About Chemical Sunscreens

Zombie Coral Reefs

We’ve talked about the increasing presence of certain chemicals in our environment with lowering fertility rates. A 15-year study of almost 5,000 Danish men with an average age of 19 found that only 25% had "really good semen quality—that is the shape and concentration of the sperm." Though the study concentrated on PFCs (perfluorochemicals) and phthalates, found in plastics and cosmetic products, head researcher Niels Jorgensen, speaking at the European Society of Human Reproduction and Embryology’s annual conference, also recommended abandoning sunscreens, much to the discomfiture of the Cosmetics, Toiletry and Perfumery Association.

However, before we abandon all sunscreens, we should identify the problem.

The principal culprit in relation to fertility problems appears to be oxybenzone found in chemical sunscreens, judged a hormone disruptor by the EWG. The latest reports of a similar plight suffered by another of oxybenzone’s victims would seem to support the hypothetical link between oxybenzone exposure and reduced fertility.

Scientists are now saying that hopes that sea corals will recover in the future are being dashed by the emergence of so-called "Zombie Corals," or corals with no reproductive ability. Cherly M. Woodley, a marine biologist at NOAA’s National Ocean Service, led a research study that sampled 327 coral samples off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico and the US Virgin Islands. The University of Florida team found that in some places off the Florida Keys, the coral had no eggs or sperm, in contrast to remote areas of the virgin islands, where coral still had full reproductive ability. The areas most affected were the highly popular tourist areas, and the source of the problem was eventually narrowed down to oxybenzone, the most commonly used UVB filter in sunscreens. Oxybenzone has a number of deleterious effects on coral, causing DNA damage in adult coral while simultaneously deforming it at the larval stage. Shortly after the study’s findings were revealed at the 13th Annual Coral Reef Symposium, moves to introduce legislation banning oxybenzone began in Hawaii.

We knew oxybenzone wasn’t good for children, then we found out it wasn’t good for men, and now we find out our coral reefs are suffering. The good news is that we have, for once, a problem we can pretty readily solve.

Here are some recommendations for getting good sun protection that keeps swimmers and the coral reefs thriving and healthy.

Zinc oxide-only sunscreen, SPF 30

You can get safe and effective versions for kids and men from Badger and other companies. To be on the safe side, I’d stay away from all chemical compounds in sunscreens and just stick to the minerals—with zinc oxide only getting my strongest recommendation. If you want a cosmetic sunscreen for the face that disappears into the skin, try our Color Free Daily Sunscreen SPF 20.


You can make an excellent DIY antioxidant sunscreen booster at home using green tea, which contains antioxidant catechins and some UV filtering capabilities. Misting all over the face, neck and arms is a great way to cool off on a hot day, it doesn’t matter how often you do it, and it’s safe for everyone down to the tiniest toddler. Take a spray bottle for the beach, on hikes and sports events (either watching or participating).

To make,pour 3 to 4 cups boiling water over three to five teabags and let steep for half an hour. Remove teabags, refrigerate, then pour into a spray bottle when cooled. Keep refrigerated.

The vitamin C conundrum

Antioxidants like vitamin C are great skin-savers, and dermatologists recommend using them in addition to sunscreen. However, it’s hard to find a vitamin C that works the way you want it to. The first issue us that it’s not stable. In fact, it oxidizes so rapidly in solution there’s usually not enough active vitamin C left by the time it reaches your skin to do much good. Its instability has led formulators to come up with solutions like vitamin C derivatives and vitamin C powders. Unfortunately, oil-soluble C derivatives like ascorbate phosphate and ascorbyl palmitate, aka ester-C, are usually too stable to have more than limited permeability and function in the skin.

Ascorbic acid powders, like the ones in sprinkle or capsule form that you keep separate from the wetting agents until you are ready to use them, pose a different set of problems. As soon as you wet the powder and apply the resulting lotion to your skin the vitamin C recrystallizes, and crystallized vitamin C, because it can’t penetrate the skin, doesn’t work as an antioxidant. There is also a pH problem: L-ascorbic acid penetrates better at a low pH, and mixing L-ascorbic acid with water results in a very low pH of around 2.2 to 2.5—but the skin’s acid mantle works best to protect the skin when its pH is around 5 to 5.5. A too high pH can result in dry and irritated skin, but a too low pH can create redness, inflammation and quite often angry breakouts—even in people who don’t normally break out.

A synergistic antioxidant combo that works

Vitamins C and E work together, scavenging and recycling free radicals from one to the other in feedback loop fashion. Ferulic acid, another powerful antioxidant when acting on its own, works even better with vitamins C and E. The most state-of-the-art vitamin C serum to be found at this stage of formulating knowledge appears to be a serum that contains stabilized ascorbic acid, vitamin E and ferulic acid.

In fact, a study shows that combining antioxidants vitamins C, E and ferulic in the correct ratio can increase the protection power of your sunscreen by up to eight times. A good, ready-made vitamin C, E ferulic acid serum is worth the investment, especially given that homemade C serums are very difficult to get right.

Astaxanthin Supplements

Astaxanthin is a very powerful antioxidant, and taking it internally as well as applying it topically will help protect your skin from the sun. For example, it is highly recommended that fair skinned people from Northern climes start taking astaxanthin supplements a month or so before going on vacation—fair skins that don’t get sun regularly are at greater risk of developing skin cancer, in some measure because their owners indulge in risky behavior such as chasing after a “healthy tan.” Actually, the phrase itself is oxymoronic. Some of us have maintained for years that the most salubrious vacation is the one where you’re inside reading a book, or in a darkened bar getting snockered, and who knows—we may be on to something.

Topical oil blends that contain carotenoids like astaxanthin and lycopene can provide a little additional sun protection, but your best protection via the carotenoid route is to include red and orange-colored veggies in your diet and supplement with astaxanthin both internally and topically.

Cover Up

Wear big hats, cover yourself with shirts, use parasols—you know the drill. If you turn pink, don’t slather on more sunscreen. Seek shade. And remember Kipling’s judicious warning: "Mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun."