Coral Reefs Are Dying to Tell You Not to Use Sunscreen

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Coral Reefs Are Dying to Tell You Not to Use Sunscreen

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Did you know that the sunscreen you wear while snorkeling could be harming the beautiful coral reef around you? An expert in sun protection, Tuga Sunwear has partnered with EPI to give you the facts about protecting yourself and your world. 

According to the U.S. National Park Service, as well as numerous scientific studies, coral reefs are under siege from a variety of sources, including marine pollutants, over fishing, warming water, and disease. Sunscreens also are a factor in coral reef die off. It is estimated that 4,000-6,000 TONS of sunscreen enter reef areas every year, and sunscreen chemicals are particularly concentrated over popular coral reefs as tourists snorkel and dive in these areas. Each time a person enters the water, the sunscreen they applied washes off and stays in the water. Even if you are not in the ocean, all water eventually ends there, and so do the chemicals. While companies are developing and introducing reef-safe sunscreen with less harmful chemicals, there is still a lot of research to be done on these.

Protecting your skin from sun damage and skin cancer is critically important, too. Skin cancer rates continue to rise, and the age at which people contract skin cancer continues to decrease – not a good thing! The American Cancer Society estimates that more than 76,000 Americans this year will be diagnosed with melanoma – the most dangerous of skin cancers – and that many of these “could be prevented by protecting skin from excessive sun exposure….” Melanoma begins in the cells that produce skin pigment and is usually caused by over-exposure to UV rays. Traveling all the way from the sun, UV rays are strong enough to reach even below the surface of water.

Sunscreen is a great tool in the fight against skin cancer, but you’d have to apply quite a bit of sunscreen every four hours to stay protected. That’s not something most people remember to do. Sunscreen can also give a false sense of security, causing you to be in the sun for longer periods of time and increasing the doses of UV that you receive.

In 2001, as a parent of four young children growing up in sunny, beachside California, EPI Board Member John Westgarth knew there had to be a better way. A need to protect the health of children and ecosystems led John to found a line of sun protective apparel called Tuga Sunwear, named after “tortuga,” the Spanish word for turtle.

EPI Belize students sport Tuga Sunwear rash guards while snorkeling and gathering science data.
EPI Belize students sport Tuga Sunwear rash guards while snorkeling and gathering science data.

First off, John did his research, looking toward Australia, a leader in sun protective clothing. He found that wearing apparel and hats tested and rated for their sun blocking characteristics (UPF rating) can reduce the amount of sunscreen needed by as much as 90%! Exposed areas like the face, neck, and hands still need sunscreen, but areas covered with apparel do not. All clothing blocks some UV, but the percentage varies significantly by the type of apparel, fabric, and other factors. A typical white cotton t-shirt provides a UPF 5 (this is similar to SPF 5 rating in sunscreen) which may prevent sunburn but still allows a lot of UV to penetrate the skin.

Armed with research, John knew he had found his niche – a business that combined his knowledge of apparel with his passion for environmental protection.

EPI first partnered with John and Tuga Sunwear in 2011, when EPI began selling Tuga’s rash guards (a fitted top perfect for swimming or surfing) in the effort to make EPI participants more aware of the health of the reefs and their skin. When John’s youngest children participated in an EPI Belize course in 2014 – a course known for its snorkeling along the beautiful Mesoamerican Reef – John donated rash guards to every participant! At that point EPI knew it had found something extra special in John, and he joined the EPI board the following year. Today, Tuga Sunwear sells lots of sun protective clothing including EPI rash guards through its website. It also donates rash guards to EPI’s most sun-weathered and field-experienced employees, its instructors.

EPI is proud to partner with a socially responsible company that strives to protect the world’s treasures. Through its products and its practices – the company is 100% solar-powered! – John has created something special in Tuga Sunwear.

So, protect yourself and your oceans this year. Check out EPI rash guards on Tuga's website and all the fun gear at the EPI Store.

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