General Advice, Sustainability, Travel Resources, Travel Tips

A Sunburnt Country: Sun Safety in Australia

There are two things that most everyone knows about Australia: 1) that this is a country of beaches and ocean lovers given the sheer amount of coastline and 2) that the sun is so blazing lava hot it will fry pasty European skin to Melanoma status in no time (and, if you are lucky enough to have been blessed with more melanin, don’t think you’re off Scott-free either, dark skin still can get sunburned and skin cancers, while less likely, are often more deadly in people of color as they are less likely to be diagnosed and treated at an early stage). Seriously, on an average summer’s day in the midwest of Australia the UV would be into the high rating (8+) by 9 am and would skyrocket to extreme (11+) by midday. In January in Geraldton we would routinely see 15 on the UV index…sun safety is no joke here. The sun is just hotter down under (thanks world for polluting and making that annoying ozone hole…though in good news, that is shrinking thanks to the Montreal Protocol’s continued enforcement of the global ban on CFCs). Compare this to where I grew up in Southern California (in summer it gets to high UV, but not until 11 am and peaks at about 10.5 UV at midday) and you can see the dilemma – this country loves being in the ocean, but the sun is trying to kill them. 

Sun Safety: Skin Cancer Rates and Prevention Over Time

The Australian Government answered this dilemma in their usual manner, through extensive public health campaigns that started in the 80s and featured wonderfully cheesy birds singing “slip, slop, slap”. This was the start of decades of work to educate Australians about sun safety and, well it worked, sort of. Just head to any beach in Australia and you will see moderate amounts of slipping on a shirt or rashguard, tons of slopping on those white gloops of chemical sunscreen, and a lot of slapping on fashionable hats. Still though, two in three Australians will be diagnosed with some form of skin cancer in their lifetimes, which given these sun safety campaigns only started in the 80s and most skin cancers are diagnosed later in life one would hope that these cancer rates start falling as the children of the 90s and later start to get to the mid/later life stages when skin cancers are more commonly diagnosed (just to do some math for you – the average age of skin cancer diagnosis is 65 and someone who is 65 in 2022 would have been born in the late 50s, thus giving them 30 years of sun exposure before we knew how harmful it can be). 

The Problem with Chemical Sunscreens

Okay, so now we know that UV exposure is a pretty big problem, especially in Australia, but we still want to enjoy that beautiful beach, so we just follow the government recommendations from the 80s right? Well, now, as with all science over time, we know more and the verdict is in – chemical sunscreens are killing the reefs and, probably, aren’t so great for you either. See oxybenzone and octinoxate are so bad for coral reefs and marine life in general that popular beach destinations like Hawaii, Aruba, Bonaire, Palau, the USVIs, Key West in Florida, and certain ecoreserves in Mexico have banned using sunscreens that contain these two key chemicals. These chemicals disrupt the reproduction of corals (which are actually tons of tiny animals, fascinating, I know) and cause bleaching at worryingly low concentration levels. Octocrylene isn’t banned yet as it doesn’t seem to cause as much damage at low levels, but at high concentrations harms fatty acid metabolism in corals. Further, oxybenzone, octinoxate, and homosalate appear to have hormone disruptive effects in marine life and in humans. Basically, it’s complicated science that is still continuing, but it’s enough to convince me that of those five big baddies, there are four really bad baddies (oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, and octocrylene) that are bad news for our already stressed coral reefs. 

A picture of the Ningaloo reef by 3 Island Dive
Coral reefs are some of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet, even higher than rainforests, and despite only occupying about 1% of the ocean’s floor, contain about 25% of all marine life. Photo credit: 3 Islands Whale Shark Dive, Ningaloo Reef

Whew, now you made it through that link mine-field, let’s get down to brass tacks – if chemical sunscreen is killing the reef and the sun is killing me, then what the heck do I do? The answer is threefold: 1) cover up rather than sunscreen up, especially when diving or swimming in sensitive marine environments, 2) use mineral sunscreens where you can’t cover up, like your face, feet, and hands, and 3) time your activities to avoid peak UV hours (often between about 10 am and 2 pm, but check your local area as this varies widely based on location and time of year).

Answer 1: Cover Up

I’ll be honest, this one took me a little while to get on board with as I’m just as vain as anyone and, well, like wearing a bikini. It didn’t help that growing up I rarely saw fashionable swim clothing. It kind of felt like you either were fashionable or wore sun protective clothing. Luckily, that is changing in Australia at least as more and more people are learning about the dual issues (reef and human health) of chemical sunscreen. The big brands are now doing really cute long sleeve swimsuits and rash guards and dive leggings are slowly growing in popularity beyond just, well divers. I am a nature nerd at heart and love what Waterlust is doing with their super awesome quality, ocean education focused, sun protective swimwear, but if looking like a whale shark isn’t your cup of tea then have a look at smaller brands like Andavi Swim. Hats are important as well (for best sun safety make sure they cover your ears and neck), but are more widely available than swim clothing – I particularly like Solbari for effective, yet fashionable sun hats and they have a range of other everyday sun safety clothing as well.

Kane and Monica wearing rashguards, sun hats, and sunglasses while paddleboarding the Ningaloo reef - sun safety and reef safety in one.

These items come with a higher price tag upfront than a tube of cheap chemical sunscreen, but given they will last for years they come out cheaper at the end of the day, rather than having to constantly buy more sunscreen (especially if you are a frequent ocean goer, seriously you go through more sunscreen than you realize). Another big bonus of covering up, especially for activities like snorkeling and diving, is the sting and abrasion protection rash guards and swim leggings provide. Australia’s oceans are wonderfully prolific, which is why diving them is so fun, but all that life often brings the annoying little stingers out, so why let your beautiful dive get ruined by a sting to your inner thigh that will rub and itch for days after when you could have avoid that and protected the reef from chemical sunscreen just by wearing your pretty dive gear? Take it from me, stingers are worth avoiding.

Answer 2: Use Mineral Sunscreens

This is where that phrase reef safe sunscreen comes into play, because unless you want to look like a bank robber, you generally can’t cover up your face while snorkeling. There will always be a place for sunscreen, such as the back of your neck, ears, hands, feet, and the obvious face, so how to pick a good reef safe sunscreen? Unfortunately the term is not regulated and you will need to flip the bottle over, squint or pull out your magnifying glass, and read that teeny tiny print where they put the ingredients. As mentioned before, the four biggest ones to avoid are oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, and octocrylene; but if you’re really gungho then be on the lookout for avo-benzones (oxybenzone’s cousin) and octisalate as well. You will be shocked by just how hard it is to find sunscreen in your average grocery store aisle without these chemicals.  

In general, look for zinc and titanium as these are the mineral sunscreens that create a physical barrier (hence why they are called physical sunscreens) between your skin and the sun. Avoid nano-particles as these have uncertain effects on marine life and if you are frustrated with that ghostly glow that some zinc sunscreens give you look for tinted ones. Next week I’ll go into detailed reviews of mineral sunscreens I’ve tried, but for now my everyday favorite is by far is Mineral Matte Screen by Supergoop (it feels so light on your skin and looks great) and my go to for a long day in the water is a combination of Surf Mud (on my nose and checks that get the most sun/rubbing from the mask) and Invisible Zinc Sheer Defence Tinted Moisturizer (I put this one on as base layer all over and apply Surf Mud on top). 

Answer 3: Avoid the Midday Sun

I’ve saved the best, and cheapest, for last, as timing your outside activities to avoid the midday sun is a free and effective way to practice sun safety. This is why the Cancer Council of Australia has added seek and slide to that original slip, slop, slap jingle. Basically, seek shade during peak UV hours and slide on a pair of sunglasses (or sunnies as the ever so lazy Aussies call them, I do love their never ending abbreviations). This one is fairly self-explanatory and I’ve already gone on for a while, so I’ll leave it at this, especially when you’re in Australia in summer, have your beach time before 11 am then use sun safety as one more reason why you just must seek some shade at the fancy new cafe you saw on the walk down to the ocean. Maybe we should add sip to that jingle as your reward for slipping, slopping (in a reef safe manner), slapping, seeking, and sliding, because while Australia is the land of sun, it is also the land of coffee and nearly everywhere makes a mean flat white.

Perfection is the Enemy of the Good

I am not always perfectly sun and reef safe. Sometimes I like to show my legs and wear shorts as it makes me feel good. At these times I try to remember that oft used Voltaire quote “perfection is the enemy of the good” so I do what I can; if I’m not swimming I will sometimes use chemical sunscreens (though I do always avoid chemical sunscreens with oxybenzone), because I feel that the risk/benefit ratio is different on land (I’m not harming reef and sometimes mineral sunscreens just won’t cut it, especially for large body coverage during sweaty activities, like when you’re on a run). Sometimes I will not cover up, but will seek shade and time my daily activities rather than slop on any chemical sunscreen. For me it’s a balance between sun safety, reef safety, and personal emotions/fashion that shifts based on what situation I’m in, but always comes back to my key tenants of 1) not wanting to get skin cancer and protect my skin so it doesn’t prematurely age and 2) wanting to protect the marine environments that I so love, so that one day I can take my future children to dive those same reefs, hopefully in as pristine or even better condition than they are now.

My first attempt at sun safety, it wasn't perfect, but good enough.
Perfect is the enemy of the good. Do your best. Do a little better everyday, that is how the world changes.

I know sunscreen is not the only thing harming our coral reefs, climate change, over fishing, and industrial pollution are massive contributors to coral bleaching and death, but sunscreen is something that I can choose to change individually, while the other problems are big, community, world-wide problems. I definitely do all that I can to encourage the global shift away from fossil fuels and towards more sustainable fishing practices, but the reality is that I cannot change those things alone. I can choose what sun safety methods are best for me and the planet though, and to me, that is powerful. The environmental problems that we face as a generation are so grave that it can be easy to be overwhelmed and pull back, to throw up your hands and say “well I can’t change the world by myself, so why bother trying?”. The answer to that eco-anxiety turned apathy is to do what you can, when you can, how you can. You can’t do it all, but you can do your part, and maybe after reading this you have some new ideas of things that you can do today to help protect our reefs and marine environments for generations to come.

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