Sunscreens Burning Reefs

New study suggests sunscreens are killing coral populations

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Asher Pacey weaves himself through a tube along a hidden lineup in the Great Barrier Reef. Photo: Shield

It's no secret that coral reefs the world over have been dealt a heavy blow in recent years. Across the globe, reefs have been dying off in terrifying numbers, with one study stating that nearly a quarter of the world's reefs are in significant danger. And while a number of causes, including global warming, have contributed to the decimation of the world's reefs, a new study suggests that your sunscreen may be playing a significant role.

Coral reefs account for only one-tenth of one percent of the world's ocean floor, but they provide a habitat for nearly one quarter of the world's marine life and inject billions of dollars into the world's economy. But they're facing a very real threat. A report from the World Wildlife Fund estimates that more than 25 percent of the world's reefs are under risk of collapsing. While coral bleaching, often as a result of ocean acidification tied to global warming, has been tagged as a culprit, oxybenzone, an ingredient found in most sunscreens, has been tied to the demise of coral populations in Hawaii, the Virgin Islands, and South Florida, according to new research.

In the study, which first appeared in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology last week, oxybenzone was shown to have crippling effects on coral by bleaching it white and blocking it from receiving essential nutrients.

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Protected coral reefs in the Great Barrier Reef off Australia remain healthy, partially due to a lack of man’s continued presence. Photo: Shield

"This study raises our awareness of a seldom-realized threat to the health of our reef life … chemicals in the sunscreen products visitors and residents wear are toxic to young corals," said Pat Lindquist, executive director of the Napili Bay and Beach Foundation in Maui, in an interview with the Washington Post. "This knowledge is critical to us as we consider actions to mitigate threats or improve on current practices."

It's not just surfers, swimmers, and other ocean-goers using the sunscreen that are adversely affecting the reef. Whenever you shower after wearing sunscreen with oxybenzone, regardless of having been in the ocean, the chemical can find its way to the sea through our sewers and other waterways.

"The most direct evidence we have is from beaches with a large amount of people in the water," John Fauth, an associate professor of biology at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, also told the Post. "But another way is through the wastewater streams. People come inside and step into the shower. People forget it goes somewhere."

Oxybenzone is found in more than 3,500 sunscreens. While it would be irresponsible to stop wearing sunscreen altogether, experts suggest finding versions without oxybenzone and using sunscreens that utilize zinc oxide and other natural minerals to keep you from getting fried.