Is Your Sunscreen Killing the Coral Reef?

Recent studies have discovered that certain sunscreen chemicals are harming our beloved coral—find out what to do, just in time for National Sunscreen Day.

Written By
Guest Blogger

This blog post was written by Anna Smith, an Ocean Conservancy intern working with the Ocean Acidification program for the month of May 2018. Anna is a senior in high school and is looking forward to studying Environmental Sciences in college.

With summer fast approaching, many of us are already looking forward to spending days on the beach and getting in some much-needed vitamin D. Most of us will unknowingly celebrate National Sunscreen Day this Sunday when we stock up on beach supplies; but before you buy your sunscreen for the summer, we wanted to give you the lowdown on sunscreen ingredients and ocean health.

Recent studies have found that sunscreen chemicals in many popular products actually hurt corals. The main chemical culprits are oxybenzone and octinoxate, which convert sunburn-causing UV rays into harmless heat on human skin. But once these chemicals are in the water, they actually decrease corals’ defenses against bleaching, damaging their DNA and hurting their development. It’s almost as though sunscreen for humans has the opposite effect for corals! This damage, along with harm from other stressors including ocean acidification, water pollution, rising sea temperatures, and coral disease, prevents corals from successfully reproducing and surviving in current marine environments.

When beachgoers wearing sunscreen go swimming, they carry these chemicals into the ocean. Research shows that coral reefs in Hawaii are exposed to over 6,000 tons of sunscreen lotion every year. Chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate also enter marine ecosystems through sewage treatment plant outflows. Since they’re not designed to remove other pollutants, they are not usually removed by wastewater treatment systems. A 2015 study showed that oxybenzone starts causing serious damage to corals at concentrations as low as the equivalent of one drop of water in six-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools. In Hawaii, concentrations more than 10 times that amount have been measured at popular swimming beaches that feature some of the islands’ most exquisite coral reefs.

To protect Hawaii’s precious coral ecosystems, the state’s lawmakers passed a bill on May 1, 2018 that prohibits the sale and distribution of sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. If the legislation is signed by Governor David Ige, it will take effect on January 1, 2021. This is a big step designed to protect one of Hawaii’s major tourist attractions—it’s beautiful reef ecosystems. Tourism is a huge part of the Hawaiian economy—a more than $16 billion industry. Millions of visitors will be affected by this law but local businesses are ramping up awareness campaigns to help. For example, Hawaiian Airlines has partnered with Raw Elements to offer reef safe sunscreen containing only certified natural and organic ingredients to their guests.

Even if you’re not lucky enough to be at a Hawaiian beach this summer, we can all still make a difference. By putting our awareness into action, we can make different choices that lessen our impact on the ocean.

  1. You’ve already taken the first step—becoming informed!
  2. Choose mineral sunscreens, especially lotions containing non-nano zinc dioxide as the primary active ingredient.
  3. Look for reef safe sunscreens which are becoming increasingly available
  4. Avoid aerosol sunscreen. Much of what you spray leaves a residue on the sand which is then washed back into the ocean. Your lungs will be healthier too, as aerosol sunscreens are easily inhaled.
  5. If you can, apply less personal care products before you go swimming; the fewer chemicals you bring into the ocean, the better. Some ways to protect your skin from harmful UV radiation without lots of sunscreen could be to avoid going to the beach during the intense midday sun, or spending lots of time in the shade and in sun protective clothing and a hat.

These tips can help you care for the ocean while you enjoy carefree time on the beach and in the ocean. Of course, we don’t mean to throw shade on sunscreen on National Sunscreen Day—you should always protect yourself from harmful UV rays while enjoying time outside! So next time you join your friends at the beach, help us shed some light on this beloved summer essential and share our tips to keep both beachgoers and our treasured corals healthy, safe and protected.


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