Your Sunscreen Might Be Killing the Coral Reef

Your Sunscreen Might Be Killing the Coral Reef

This sounds like a clickbait article, but I assure you it’s true. Two of the most ubiquitous active ingredients in chemical (as opposed to mineral or physical) sunscreen, Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, have been recently linked to coral bleaching in a few studies. Before you throw your sunscreen away, remember that not all sunscreens have these components and that it only matters if you’re getting in the ocean with these compounds on your skin. But, for anyone planning to go to the beach soon or lives in a coastal region, keep in mind that your actions might accelerate the already declining coral reef. According to a 2017 UNESCO study, of the 29 World Heritage reef areas, 25 will likely undergo severe bleaching twice every ten years by 2014. Since 2015, 20% of the world’s coral has died. Unless we make drastic changes to our behavior, the reefs will likely die due primarily to human intervention, from climate change to pollution.

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I found out about this problem while reading about Hawaii’s pending ban on these sunscreens. They’d be the first U.S. state to ban these problematic chemicals, though some individual resorts have banned the sale of such sunscreens (though they have no jurisdiction over what someone brings in their suitcase). The bill, which passed the state’s legislature in May, proclaims that the chemicals “have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment and residing ecosystems, including coral reefs that protect Hawaii’s shoreline.” Governor David Ige is expected to sign this into law.

Spitting Cave, Honolulu. Sunscreens impact coral reef
Spitting Cave, Honolulu. Credit: Unsplash

So what are these chemicals in question? Oxybenzone is also called Benzophenone-3 or BP-3 and it’s a common ingredient in sunscreen for its protection against UV light. To make a sunscreen effective, most companies use a combination of two or three of the following compounds: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate. Oxybenzone is added to approximately 65% of the non-mineral sunscreens listed on the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) 2018 sunscreen database. Furthermore, it not only is linked to coral bleaching, but has potentially damaging effects on the humans wearing it. According to EWG, it has the potential to cause skin irritation and there is some small evidence that it could be dangerous in other ways, like interfering with one’s hormones.

Your Sunscreen Might Be Killing the Coral Reefs

The study suggests that these chemicals, even in extremely small concentrations, cause viral infections in the little symbiotic friends that the coral needs to survive. They’re called zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae are a type of algae that live in coral and provide them with much-needed oxygen and give them their bright colors. Hence “coral bleaching” describes the loss of color when the zooxanthellae leave the coral or die. Once the zooxanthellae leave the coral, it’s left with little access to food and oxygen, making it sick and susceptible to illness. Exposure to Oxybenzone in young coral increased susceptibility to bleaching, DNA damage, abnormal skeleton growth, and reproductive problems causing deformed baby coral. In areas with increased human recreation (like beaches) this concentration is high enough to cause real damage to the tiny creatures. They found that anywhere between 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunscreen melt off people into coral areas each year.

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This might be scary, but keep in mind that there are tons of reef-safe sunscreen. You can look at the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory’s “Hell list” of all the worst ingredients for wildlife, including microbeads, nanoparticles like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, and Oxybenozne. While it’s not environmentally perfect thanks to its plastic packaging, the daily sunscreen I use from Glossier doesn’t have any of the hell list chemicals in it. I suspect that while most of the big brands like Coppertone use Oxybenzone, they’re also the ones who likely test on animals and use other environmentally damaging ingredients, so you might be avoiding them already. So go forth and protect both your skin (remember, sunscreen is the only proven anti-aging product out there) and the coral reef by being conscious of your choices.

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