Your Sunscreen is Killing Earth's Coral Reefs

By Maddie Stone on at

If you’re one of the millions of beachgoers who slathers yourself in sunscreen before hitting the surf, here’s an additional reason to feel personally responsible for the sixth mass extinction. Your sunscreen, my sunscreen, all of our goddamn sunscreen is contributing to the death of Earth’s coral reefs. Did I mention we suck?

Climate change may be Public Enemy #1 when it comes to reef-building corals, but for years, scientists have warned that oxybenzone, an ultraviolet-absorbing compound found in practically every major brand of sunscreen, might also be doing damage.

Now, a study published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology has confirmed our suspicions. Oxybenzone kills coral. It disrupts their growth, increases the rate of coral bleaching, damages DNA, and can even cause the larval form of coral (called planula) to become trapped in their own skeleton.

According to the new study, a minuscule amount of sunscreen — the equivalent of a single drop in six Olympic sized swimming pools — contains enough oxybenzone to begin disrupting coral growth.

Across the world, 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions are discharged into coral reefs each year. And it isn’t just beachgoers who are at fault. No matter where you live, your skincare products wash off in the shower and wind up in a local waterway. Eventually, some of that water reaches the ocean.

Your Sunscreen is Killing Earth's Coral Reefs

Airport Reef in American Samoa photographed in August 2015 (after the bleaching event). Approximately 70 per cent of the corals here are dead. Image Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey

Coral reefs harbour a quarter of the ocean’s biodiversity, spawn many of the fish we eat, and protect thousands of miles of coastline from storm surge. Two weeks ago, a report from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration concluded that we’re in the midst of a massive coral bleaching event, a phenomenon which occurs when high temperatures disrupt the symbiotic relationship between coral and its photosynthetic food source, a green alga called zooxanthellae.

This year’s coral bleaching could impact a full 38 per cent of coral reefs worldwide. If current trends continue of ocean warming and acidification continue, some marine scientists think reefs could disappear entirely within the next several decades. The fact that humans are making this human-caused problem even worse by tanning is just sad.

“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” study co-author Craig Downs told The Washington Post. “We have lost at least 80 per cent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers.”

Thankfully, there’s a pretty straightforward solution to this mess: stop wearing sunscreen. More specifically, stop wearing Coppertone, L’Oreal Paris, Hawaiian Tropic, Banana Boat, and other major brands of sunscreen that contain oxybenzone. If you’re wondering where that leaves you, here’s a list of brands that don’t contain this ingredient.

Climate change is a hard problem, the hardest one our species has ever faced. This isn’t. Let’s all do our part to solve it.

Top: A completely bleached coral photographed in Hawaii during the main islands’ first ever mass bleaching event in late 2014. Image Credit: XL Catlin Seaview Survey