Oxybenzone-Based Sunscreens Kill Corals, Study Says

Between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion make their way onto coral reefs every year

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Hanauma bay is one of the busiest bodies of water in Hawaii where sunscreen has had an adverse effect on the coral reefs. Via Keith Roper/Flickr
John Virata

The next time you snorkel Hanauma Bay on Oahu in Hawaii, think twice about the sunscreen that you lather on before you enter the water, because chances are highly likely that it contains a chemical that is detrimental to the health of corals and coral reefs. Oxybenzone, a chemical that is found in virtually all chemical-based sunscreens on the market, kills corals, according to a new study published today in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology.

The stony coral Stylophora pistillata dies when exposed to oxybenzone, a chemical that is found in sunscreen. Photo by Haplochromis/Wikimedia

While the chemical is proven to prevent sunburn, when exposed to Stylophora pistillata baby corals, known as coral planulae, the planulae grow deformed with their DNA damaged. The chemical also acts as an endocrine disruptor, which causes the coral to cover itself in its own skeleton, effectively killing it. The presence of oxybenzone also increases the rate of coral bleaching, the study said.

The researchers, from Virginia, Florida, Israel, the National Aquarium (US) and the US National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration say between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion make their way onto coral reefs every year. In Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the research was conducted, concentrations of oxybenzone were found to be between 800 parts per trillion to 1.4 parts per million, more than 12 times higher than the amount of oxybenzone needed to have negative impacts on corals.

“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue.  We have lost at least 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean,” said lead author Dr. Craig Downs of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory Virginia. “Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers. Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this will achieve little if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment.”

According to the study, there are currently 3,500 sunscreen products around the world that contain oxybenzone. The solution? There are sunscreen products that are mineral-based that use zinc-oxide or titanium dioxide as a sunscreen that reef lovers can use, or better yet, use the UV rated surf shirts (called rashies in Australia) that surfers use when the sun is bright in the sky, to help prevent sunburn.

An abstract of the study can be found here.

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Article Categories:
Fish · Lifestyle