Experts advise us to apply sunscreen on a consistent basis. We all know the associated risks of being overexposed to our sun’s rays, yet recent scientific studies have shown that chemicals used in common sunscreen products may also be causing irreparable damage to our planet’s coral reefs.
The media has also started to take notice of the startling warnings. You may have read the sensationalist headlines, with words such as ‘killing’ or ‘destroying’ being used to describe sunscreen’s effect. But in this case, it’s not just clickbait.
While climate change is still the primary cause for concern, the ingredients found in most sunscreen products have now been scientifically proven to cause damage to our coral reefs. We’ve already lost 80% of coral reefs in the Caribbean. If we want to continue enjoying those beautiful holidays in the Great Barrier Reef, something needs to happen.
And no, this isn’t scaremongering or pseudo-science. Two peer reviewed studies have been conducted that put matters beyond reasonable doubt:
- Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections. Published in April 2008, you can read the full study at PMC.
- Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. This recent study from October 2015 has had heavy press coverage recently. The study is heavy reading, so you may want to read the shorter explanation by one of the authors if you want to get a grip on the material.
Of course, the scientific jargon can be a little confusing and that’s understandable. The following explains the core of the issue in slightly simpler terms.
The Problem (In Layman’s Terms!)
The study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology (October 2015) deals specifically with oxybenzone (benzophenone-3). The study calls the threat from this chemical ‘ecological and existential’. The chemical is described as being ‘highly toxic to juvenile corals’, affecting them in four distinct ways:
- Damaged DNA: oxybenzone damages the DNA of juvenile corals, causing them to have trouble reproducing. And even if they do reproduce, the offspring is usually not optimally healthy.
- Coral Bleaching: Sunscreens promote viral infections in coral, causing coral bleaching. This is extremely worrying, associated with natural events such as El Nino. Oxybenzone can cause coral to bleach at lower temperatures, posing an even greater threat to the environment.
- Endocrine Disruptor: Juvenile coral that has been exposed to oxybenzone can sometimes lead to death due to skeletal encapsulation.
- Deformity: Oxybenzone causes deformity in coral, which severely impacts health.
The studies also found issues with other chemicals. Butylparaben, a preservative, has also been linked to coral bleaching. Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor fall under the same category. Considering just how damaging coral bleaching is, it’s undoubtedly a worrying scenario.
Perhaps the most worrying aspect of the study is that very little of these chemicals are required to cause damage. In fact, it’s as little as one drop of water in what would be the equivalent of almost seven Olympic swimming pools. Considering that it’s estimated that up to 14 thousand tonnes of sunscreen washes of our bodies each year, the potential results are frightening.
And that figure doesn’t even include water and waste discharges. Just think of the sunscreen that we use before going out for a run, enjoying an outdoor barbecue, or catching a few rays while relaxing in our gardens and parks. We all proceed to wash our sunscreen off, potentially landing in our waters and damaging coral reefs.
What Can We Do About It?
It’s clear that the effects of human activities on our environment are worrying, but it’s still possible to protect yourself from the sun’s harmful rays without having an impact on the planet. If you’re going to be swimming, snorkeling or scuba diving near coral reefs, ensure you opt for a coral reef safe sunscreen.
Considering that major brands such as L’Oreal and Coppertone both use oxybenzone, it’s clear that consumers are going to have to do a little digging to find a suitable alternatively. Unfortunately it’s not as easy as looking for a simple label, but there are ways of figuring out which products are safe to use:
- The main ingredient you’re looking to avoid is oxybenzone. This is the chemical that has been scientifically proven to harm coral reefs.
- Inspect the product label and also avoid butylparaben, octinoxate, and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor. The latter is banned in the USA and Japan, but both Canadian and European sunscreens may contain it.
- The problem with sunscreen is that it comes off while in the water. Look for a product that has been proven to be effective at being water resistant, meaning it will stay on your skin (and off our coral reefs!).
It’s worth keeping in mind that a government body does not officially regulate coral reef safe sunscreens. Such labels are simply promotional and set by the manufacturers themselves, meaning that it’s up to you to check the ingredients carefully. If you are in doubt, email or tweet the manufacturer to verify whether the product meets the above requirements.
We can also look to our governments. For example, local authorities in American cities such as Fort Lauderdale and Ocean City have constructed sewer outfalls that divert wastewater from beaches into the ocean. In addition to the problems with sunscreen waste, this toxic mix also contains birth-control pill residue and other harmful products. It’s imperative that we encourage our powers that be to consider the environment and not just convenience or the almighty dollar.
Remember, coral reefs don’t just add to a picturesque setting, an exotic artwork for us to admire. Coral reefs also play an integral role in biodiversity, protect our coasts from natural disasters, encourage tourism around the world, and also have an impact on marine life (having significant value to fisheries). If we’re to continue enjoying these natural wonders, we need to act quickly and decisively.