Sunscreen May Be Destroying Coral Reefs

Just a tiny amount of a common chemical in sunscreen can bleach and break delicate coral

Bleached Coral
Bleached coral pokes through the water's surface off the coast of New Ireland, Papua New Guinea. Jurgen Freund/Nature Picture Library/Corbis

When you head to the beach, you likely grab a towel, a pair of sunglasses and a tube of sunscreen. But new research shows that the very thing that keeps you safe from the sun’s harsh rays may be damaging coral reefs, reports Darryl Fears for The Washington Post.

The culprit is an ingredient in many sunscreens called oxybenzone. After spotting the slick of sunscreen that beachgoers left behind, a team of Caribbean researchers wondered if oxybenzone affected coral reefs, reports Fears. Given the massive bleaching affecting coral reefs worldwide, they decided to look into whether sunscreen could be to blame.

According to their results, published this week in the journal Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, even tiny amounts of oxybenzone bleaches and breaks down corals. Even worse, the chemical becomes more potent when it is exposed to light.

Translation: The more swimmers at a beach, the larger the problem for delicate corals.

But before we start pointing fingers, even non-beachgoers could be part of the problem. Though the adverse effects of sunscreen on coral had the biggest impact for sources within less than half a mile, sunscreen in any wastewater—even washed off in sinks and showers far from the shore—could worsen the issue.

In a press release, researchers urge beachgoers to consider wearing rash guards instead of sunscreen. "Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers,” lead researcher Craig Downs says in the release.

Sunscreen has become a commonplace product, in part because of public health targets aimed at reducing skin cancer. But this study importantly scrutinizes the environmental fate of one of the many products we use on a daily basis and will hopefully make manufacturers and the general public think a little bit harder about the products they rely on every day.

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