Your Sunscreen May Kill Coral Reefs. What Should You Do?

By Julia S. Wilburn
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association September 2019 Newsletter)

Coral reefs are the most diverse marine ecosystems in the world. They have existed for over 400 million years and give shelter to thousands of animal species.

Today, coral reefs are dying at an alarming rate. Ongoing climate change is responsible for the death of approximately 50 percent of the world coral in the last 30 years.

According to scientists, itís not only the climate change to cause coral death. Regular sunscreen can induce the same bleaching response in corals.

The extinction of corals can have devastating global-scale effects, but we can all contribute to preserving our reefs by swapping regular sunscreen with a reef-safe sunblock.

How Does Regular Sunscreen Affect Coral Reefs?

Regular sunscreens utilize two key ingredients to protect you from sunburns and potentially from skin cancer, oxybenzone, and octinoxate.

These synthetic molecules are present in almost all chemical sunscreens, and they are highly toxic for corals and marine species. According to research, when corals absorb these compounds, they expel their life-giving algae, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching.

Oxybenzone, above all, is so toxic that a single drop of it in over 600,000 gallons of water is enough to endanger these marine organisms.

With an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen being washed into the ocean each year, the large-scale consequences can be disastrous if we donít decide to use reef-safe products.

What Is Reef-Safe Sunscreen?

Reef-safe sunscreen, also known as mineral sunblock, is a type of sunscreen that utilizes particles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide that act as a barrier between your skin and the harmful rays.

However, not all mineral sunscreens are reef-safe. Studies have shown that corals can ingest nano-size particles of these compounds, which could also lead to coral bleaching.

Reef-safe sunscreens are those mineral sunscreens that contain non-nanoparticles (particles with a size over 100 nanometers) of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.

How Can You Help Protect Coral Reefs?

It is a fact that regular sunscreen is harming coral reefs. Small changes in your choices and behavior can contribute to preserving these fragile ecosystems, though. Here are a few things you can do.

  1. Use Reef-Safe Sunscreen
    Your first reef-savvy decision Ė especially when vacationing in reef areas Ė should be to use a mineral sunscreen containing non-nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Some popular beach destinations have even banned the use of chemical sunscreens, so a reef-safe choice might be your only choice anyway.
  2. Avoid Aerosol Sunscreens
    Even if labeled as mineral, most aerosol sunscreens contain nano-sized particles, which are harmful to corals and other marine species.
  3. Use Less Sunscreen Overall
    Beachwear with embedded UV protection factors, such as shirts, shorts, and sunhats can limit the use of sunscreen with up to 90 percent. UV-proof beach tents and umbrellas can also help you limit the use of sunscreen.

Coral reefs are threatened with extinction, and along with them, the entire marine biodiversity. Regular sunscreen is one of the factors that lead to coral bleaching and potentially coral death. A small change in behavior and more environmentally-savvy decisions when choosing your sunblock is the least you can do to limit this potentially catastrophic phenomenon and preserve the beauty of our oceans.

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