Sunscreen is killing our coral reefs

Chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate – which are found in many sunscreens – have harmful impacts to the marine environment. A study conducted in 2015 showed these chemicals can affect the mortality in developing coral, bleaching of coral and cause genetic damage to coral and other organisms.

Following this research, Hawaii became the first American state to ban sunscreens that are deemed harmful to coral reefs. The ban takes effect in 2021.

Approximately 80 percent of reefs in the Caribbean alone have been lost in the last 50 years and the WWF estimates that 60 percent of the planet’s coral reefs will have died over the next 30 years. Although coral reefs only make up 1 percent of the ocean’s floor, this loss would not only mean the demise of an awe-inspiring nature but would be catastrophic for the marine biome.

Considering sunscreens have now been identified as a contributing factor in critically endangering coral reefs, it begs the question; should Australia follow suit in banning sunscreens that harm our reef?

In 2017, two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef suffered severe bleaching events. Bleaching – a phenomenon caused by global warming-induced rising of sea surface temperatures – has occurred on the reef four times in recorded history. Oxybenzone is one of the culprits when it comes to bleaching. As the concentration of oxybenzone increases, the degree of coral bleaching also increases.

Coral reefs are made up of tiny soft-bodied animals called polyps. Inside the polyps exists a form of algae that uses photosynthesis to feed coral and keep it alive. Oxybenzone makes the coral sick which then expels the algae living in it. Without these algae, the coral loses its colour and, very often, dies.

Oxybenzone also produces abnormalities in young coral and alters its DNA so instead of harbouring the life-giving algae inside, it encases itself in its own skeleton, leading to death. If young coral die there’s no way for reefs to replenish themselves.

While the quantity of sunscreen one person uses is fairly small, that amount adds up quickly considering the millions of people who visit beaches around the world. It is estimated at least 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reef areas around the world each year.

Opposition advocates to the ban point out that other factors pose equally significant threats to coral, such as global warming and coastal development. They also argue the dangers of banning a product that is designed to help prevent people from getting skin cancer. Alternative methods, like protective clothing, are often limited and not always completely safe. After all, some skin cancers, like basal and squamous cell, develop most often on the face, arms and necks—areas exposed to the sun which are not always easy to cover up with clothing, especially on the beach.

But, there is a simple solution to this dilemma- and it doesn’t involve burning to a crisp.

Eco-conscious shoppers should opt for sunscreen that does not contain oxybenzone and octinoxate as active ingredients. Rather, look for mineral based sunscreens, in which zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are common active ingredients. It’s also important that these minerals are ‘non-nano’ otherwise coral are able to consume the particles which negatively affects reef health.

Saving coral reefs is the responsibility of each and every one of us. In the words of Jane Goodall;

“What you do makes a difference and you have to decide what difference you want to make.”