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Double duty: Charters supply sunscreen to protect people and the coral reef

Publisher: The Citizen Key West
Published: Saturday, March 25th, 2012
Article by: Mandy Miles, Citizen Staff
Photographs by: Mike Hentz, Citizen Staff

Fury Water Adventures mate Kaley Green applies Reef Safe suntan lotion
to co-worker Nicholas Moreno before going out on a charter boat trip.

Coral reefs don't need sunscreen, yet the struggling marine organism that surrounds the Florida Keys gets a healthy dose of lotion and oil every time a catamaran releases 140 snorkelers into the waters above it.

A 2003 study in Switzerland estimated that 4,000 metric tons to 6,000 metric tons of the ultraviolet filtering compounds found in sunscreen end up in the world's oceans every year.

A Florida-based company that manufactures biodegradable sunscreen and skin products is joining forces with Key West watersports companies and scientists from Mote Marine Laboratory to protect the reef from the stuff that protects our skin.

ReefSafe sun care products, made in Ormond Beach by Tropical Seas Inc., are biodegradable and nontoxic to sea life -- and they're now being offered for free to snorkelers aboard Fury Water Adventures, Danger Charters and Dolphin Safari trips.

Key West sales representative Ben Hennington has been meeting with the boat owners and captains to educate them about the benefits of ReefSafe products.

"It's all about education and the message," Hennington said. "If you want to keep coming back to enjoy the reef, then you have to help protect it."

The boat companies buy the product and supply it at no cost to their passengers, who are encouraged to lather up when they board the boats. Hennington recently installed 1 liter, pump dispensers of ReefSafe sunscreen on the companies' boats to eliminate the plastic packaging of individual bottles and tubes.

Several Key West charter boats have begun providing dispensers for free
Reef Safe sunscreen.

Tropical Seas founder and CEO Dan Knorr, a biochemist in Ormond Beach, has had all of his products tested by independent labs for their biodegradability and toxicity. He also recently agreed to donate 2 percent of the proceeds from ReefSafe products to Mote Marine Laboratory's Protect Our Reef project, which is based in the Keys and also receives funding from the sale of Save Our Reef license plates, said Jason Wolf, the project coordinator for Mote.

"It's the right thing to do for the right reasons," Wolf said of the biodegradable sun products. "These products take pressure off the reef, as the majority of mass-market products are toxic to the reef."

Hennington emphasized that ReefSafe products "stay on your skin, not in our oceans" and said the small amount that does rub off biodegrades in less than 90 days and is nontoxic to sea life.

By comparison, Knorr wrote in his "Product Testing Conclusions" that zinc oxide, which is found is many sunscreens that claim to be "all natural."

Zinc oxide is an inorganic compound and not of natural origin, and the ore containing zinc is strip-mined in many countries, devastating the ecosystems surrounding the mines, Knorr wrote, adding that zinc oxide is insoluble in water, meaning it settles to the seafloor.

Reef Safe lotions and spray come in a variety of applications.

"Companies say that the zinc oxide in their products will eventually settle to the seafloor and become buried in the sediment," Knorr wrote, adding that the theory is not scientifically proven, and because the seafloor is constantly shifting, the zinc oxide would be re-released back into aquatic systems regularly.

ReefSafe makes sunscreen in SPFs of 15, 30, 36 and 48 for adults and children.

"I use it every day, and am riding around on a scooter, sweating, all day," Hennington said. "It doesn't wipe off and it doesn't burn my eyes."

The sunscreens, lip balms, bath products and after-sun aloe products come in a variety of sizes and are available in several local retail outlets, including Sugar Apple and the Saltwater Angler, and online at: www.tropicalseas.com.