How Sunscreen Is Damaging Our Reefs – and What You Can Do About It

Kate Hall

Sunscreen is a lifesaver in so many ways.

It stops us from ageing quickly (and looking like shrivelled up dried apricots) and protects against sunburn and potential skin cancer. In summer, we slather ourselves up with the stuff, and in winter we are encouraged to wear it even though it’s not sunny.

The thing is, we wear sunscreen so frequently, but do you know what’s in it?

This little white paste that seemingly has magic qualities to defend us from so many nasties, has an impact on us, but also the planet. It’s not all good. The oceans reefs, particularly coral species, are taking the brunt of the dark side of sunscreen.

It’s our responsibility to know, care, and do something about it.

sunscreen reef

There are two types of sunscreens in the world: physical and chemical.

Physical sunscreens contain ingredients that are more natural and neutral to the ocean’s ecosystem, whereas most chemical sunscreens do not. When we swim in the ocean or shower after a glorious day at the beach, our sunscreen doesn’t just disappear into thin air. It travels into the water systems and affects the ocean’s ecosystem.

Every year approximately 6000-14,000 tons of sunscreen enter the ocean.

Oxybenzone, also known as BP-3 or benzophenone-3, is the key ingredient in chemical sunscreen that is doing the most damage to our reefs.

Of course, there are parabens, nanoparticles, and other chemicals used in sunscreen which can have a negative effect on the ocean, but oxybenzone is the leading bully. Oxybenzone is a chemical found in sunscreen, hairspray, nail polish, and other cosmetics. In sunscreen, it absorbs UVB and UVA rays whilst helping to preserve other ingredients so that they don’t deteriorate from the sun. It’s quick to seep into the skin, which is why your favourite sunscreen doesn’t take forever to put on or leaves you looking like a ghost afterwards.

It may be great for you in the short term, but the coral reefs disagree.

The problem

Oxybenzone causes coral DNA damage, coral bleaching, growth stunts, and death to coral species- especially baby coral. When oxybenzone reaches baby coral, it disrupts hormones and causes the coral to produce excess calcium carbonate. The baby coral then grows to become encased inside its own skeleton; leading to death. Coral is the home to thousands of species who feed and live in coral reefs; they rely on it for survival (e.g. our friend nemo). Aside from the ecosystem, coral reefs protect shorelines from the ocean, are used as medicines, attract tourism, and are enjoyed by fishermen (a controversial topic reserved for another day).

When coral is affected, the whole ecosystem and even our economy is disturbed.

A group of European parliament members attempted to ban oxybenzone in 2015, and Hawaii continues to consider the same.  The answer to sunscreen destroying our coral reefs cannot be to stop wearing sunscreen, and there are many natural alternatives out there- we even tested a few here.

The solution

Choose sunscreens with active and natural ingredients, such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide, or chemical sunscreens which don’t contain oxybenzone, will keep you safe from the sun and leave the coral reefs in peace.

Final thoughts

It is widely known that sunscreen is just one contributor to the damage of our beautiful coral reefs. Climate change, over fishing, and water pollution from our sewers are leading causes of reef destruction too. As the dominant race, we have a responsibility to assess how all our actions affect our environment and other animals.

It’s up to us to preserve the planet, not selfishly, but for other little life forms too.

Part two with brand suggestions here


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash

Adobe Stock

Kate Hall

Ethical living/fashion advocate, eco wedding planner, and brand rep. Kate strives to promote ethical living in every way under the sun, and won’t stop at anything to make sure the planet and it’s people are being looked after the way that they should be.