Sunscreen is super important when we are wanting to go out in the sun. It reduces UV exposure and lowers the risk of skin cancer and damage. However, did you know that some sunscreen can actually damage coral reefs? 

In this article, we will look at the effects of some sunscreen on coral reefs and what we can do about it! 

The Effects of Sunscreen on Coral Reefs

Unfortunately, chemicals that are commonly found in sunscreen can significantly harm corals. A particular chemical, oxybenzone, is of great concern to scientists and conservationists alike. 

Oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3, is a chemical compound that is an active ingredient in a lot of sunscreen products. It protects our skin from UV light, however, it causes great damage to coral reefs. Because a lot of people will swim with sunscreen on, the chemicals in these products and therefore on your skin will seep into the water and make their way to coral reefs. 

molecular structure of Oxybenzone

Even if you don’t go into the sea with sunscreen on, it can still get into the oceans. As the chemical gets absorbed by you, you can excrete it through urine which will end up in the sea. Plus, when you wash it off, this water will also end up in the sea. Using sunscreen with oxybenzone will always affect coral reefs, even if you think you are being careful. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, a study by their scientists of 2,517 participants found oxybenzone in the urine of nearly all of the people tested. This suggests that this chemical is abundant in us and therefore the oceans. 

According to the Coral Reef Alliance, oxybenzone increases a coral’s susceptibility to bleaching and damages the coral’s DNA. It disrupts how corals grow and develop. When a new coral is subjected to this chemical, it will never grow strong and healthy, and its reproductive systems will be affected. 

Because of its growth being affected, a coral that has been subjected to oxybenzone will be weak and stressed and therefore much more likely to suffer from bleaching. Bleaching is the biggest problem when it comes to coral reefs and is quickly destroying the ecosystems of reefs and all the marine life that rely on them. 

According to the Climate Council of Australia, 93% of the individual coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef have suffered from bleaching. It is not just this reef that is suffering massively under the effects of bleaching. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, half of the coral reefs in the Caribbean were lost in just one year because of a huge bleaching event. This was in 2015 and the remaining coral reefs are still under great threat. 

The main cause of bleaching is global warming, however as we can see, it is more complicated than that and there are so many factors when it comes to coral bleaching. We don’t fully know the true extend as to how chemicals in sunscreen affect coral reefs, but we definitely know it is an issue. With more research and studies we will soon be aware of how big the problem is. 

The Banning of Toxic Sunscreen

Because this is such a big issue, a lot of countries and communities have taken steps towards a toxic-free way of living. According to CNN, in 2018 state lawmakers of Hawaii passed a bill that banned the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The law came into place on the first of January, 2021. 

Shortly after this announcement from Hawaii, Palau introduced their own ban. This island nation in the Pacific ocean is surrounded by beautiful ocean wildlife and therefore they are doing all they can to protect it. According to the Independent, this ban came into place in January 2020, and shops that sell any sunscreen with toxic chemicals can receive a fine of up to $1,000. 

These laws show a shift in attitudes and great care for the wildlife that we enjoy. Hopefully, other states and countries will also bring in similar laws, and we as a society can move away from lifestyles and habits that harm the oceans. 

Alternatives to Toxic Sunscreen

Of course, we need sunscreen in order to protect ourselves, so we need to know what the alternatives to toxic sunscreen are. But thankfully, communities and companies are doing things to help us protect ourselves and the coral reefs. 

According to Big Island Now, Kahalu‘u Beach Park in Hawaii has recently installed reef-safe sunscreen dispensers along the beaches. This allows visitors to enjoy the beautiful sun and beaches of Hawaii with protection. 

The new laws and concern about the chemicals in sunscreen has also caused certain companies to stop making sunscreen with oxybenzone or octinoxate in. This means that next time you head to the beach, you can check the ingredients that are in your sunscreen and make sure it is reef-safe!

There is a whole load of reef-safe sunscreen products out there, however, as the term ‘reef-safe’ has no legal definition in terms of marketing and advertising, be aware of greenwashing. This is where companies will claim their products are eco-friendly in order for you to buy them, however, they are anything but. 

There are other chemicals found in sunscreen apart from the two mentioned that affect marine life, and therefore some sunscreens that claim to be reef-friendly are harmful to the oceans. Because of this, you may wish to opt for mineral-based sunscreens as these appear to be better for the environment than chemical sunscreens. These contain zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. 

Protecting Coral Reefs Is Not Just Up To Policymakers

The news in regards to sunscreen affecting coral reefs really shows that we are all in this together and everybody’s choices matter. Protecting coral reefs is not just up to policymakers and scientists, we can also do our bit! 

Our choices, from what products we buy to what conversations we have, all have an impact on the world. Whether it be talking to your friends about reef awareness, or changing the type of sunscreen you use, your choices matter, and together, we can protect the coral reefs.