Snorkels & Fins

Sunscreen is Damaging Coral Reefs - Everything You Should Know About It

With up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen being washed off people into oceans each year, it’s time for all of us to understand how sunscreen damages coral reefs. Our simple and allegedly healthy habit of putting on lotion before exposing ourselves to UV radiations is indeed taking its toll on marine life and biodiversity.

Record heat registered in the past years, pollution, and a series of other environmental factors caused the bleaching of over 50% of the coralin Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Based on the latest trends, scientists predict that about 90% of the world’s coral will be threatened by 2030 (NOAA Coral Reef Risk Outlook).

Since the ocean gives us most of the oxygen we breath, a loss of marine bio-diversity poses a risk to human life everywhere.

According to research (International Coral Reef Initiative, 2018), one of the main causes of coral bleaching is sunscreen; more precisely oxybenzone and octinoxate (NCBI, 2018), two compounds found in most sunscreens.

Specialists concerned about the decline of coral reefs have conducted numerous studies that showed the impact cosmetic products, and above all sunscreen, have on the ecosystem.

NOAA 2016 coral stress levels map

The results speak clearly. Chemical sunscreens are the third-biggest cause of coral bleaching. Things, however, are slightly different in the case of reef safe sunscreens.

Several studies carried out in various parts of the world showed that these chemicals could stress corals and awaken their viruses. When corals become sick, they expel their life-giving algae. The result is coral bleaching, followed by coral death.

With research telling us that tons of sunscreen is washed into the reef areas annually, the negative effects could be devastating. This is why popular diving and snorkeling destinations have started to ban sunscreens containing the harmful chemicals.

Up to date, four of the most popular beach destinations (including Palau, see beautiful coral reefs view below) have introduced official bans, numerous vacation spots in one country ban non-biodegradable sunscreens despite the lack of official regulations, and many other countries are believed to follow the example.

palau islands and coral reefs

In this article, we will take a deep dive into why and how toxic sunscreen chemicals are damaging the marine life, destinations that already banned toxic sunscreens, and what you can do to help protect both yourself and the corals of our oceans.

How Exactly Sunscreen Chemicals Harm Coral Reefs?

A study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology in 2016 highlights that the chemical oxybenzone may be contributing to the destruction of coral reefs (Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral...).

It has been shown that oxybenzone causes DNA damage and endocrine disruption which could lead to coral bleaching and potentially death.

Coral bleaching is by far the specialists’ main concern. Through this process, corals reject their symbiotic organisms and lose their color. The rejection of these organisms also weakens corals, making them more prone to contracting viral infections.

oxybenzone and coral bleaching

Considering that toxicity occurs at a minimal concentration, people swimming in the proximity of coral reefs should avoid the use of chemical sunscreen completely.

According to a study conducted by the University of Tel Aviv, the equivalent of a drop of sunscreen into an Olympic swimming pool can pose a significant ecological threat.

Besides damaging the coral reefs, specific chemicals in sunscreens may also be harmful to humans. Oxybenzone, alongside other chemicals found in regular sunscreens, can trigger skin allergies, irritation, rashes, and may even cause skin cancer.

How Can We Protect Both Ourselves and The Coral Reefs?

Raw Elements Usa, Moisturizer Eco Formula, 3 Ounce

While the researches mentioned above highlight the huge negative impact sunscreens can have on the coral reefs and marine life, the researchers’ intention was not to advocate against the use of sunscreen. Parallel studies have shown that sunscreen protects against skin cancer and it is essential to wear it when planning to stay out in the sun for longer than 20 minutes.

Perhaps the most misunderstood thing about sunscreen bans regards the products that are indeed banned. Many people believe they can’t use any type of sunscreen in these areas, which is simply untrue.

In fact, governments know that skin cancer is one of the main causes of deaths in the world; therefore, certain types of sunscreens can still be used throughout the world to protect yourself against sunburns and skin cancer.

Furthermore, there are additional ways to keep harmful UV rays away from your skin while safeguarding the corals too.

Here are three simple steps you should take to protect both yourself and the coral reefs:

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See also IMPACTS OF SUNSCREENS ON CORAL REEFS (International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) Plan of Action 2016-2018),