Gabby Lout
Gabby Lout

Jul 24. 3 mins


Coral reefs are some of the most impressive and valuable ecosystems on the planet. They have been central to life throughout the course of our civilization. Some cultures, like the Hawaiians, believe that life began with a single coral polyp. The value of reefs is undeniable. They are critically important culturally, economically, and ecologically. Coral reefs support more species in one unit area than any other marine environment. Reefs are home to thousands of species of fish and invertebrates. We are discovering new species living in and around reefs each year. Coral reefs also support millions of people worldwide, providing us with countless services like tourism, recreation, fisheries and coastal protection. Recent studies from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, estimate that reefs globally provide more than $9 billion each year from tourism and recreation, and almost $6 billion each year from fisheries. In developing countries, communities depend on fish caught from surrounding reefs, as a critical food source. Healthy reefs are necessary for own survival.

Because of our actions, coral reefs are facing numerous threats. They are being threatened by over-development, sedimentation, runoff, overfishing, human-induced climate change, and ocean acidification. Because of these threats, we are damaging and losing our reefs at a rapid rate. While coral bleaching events used to occur once every 25 to 30 years in the 1980s, now events are occurring once in every six years. We are making it more difficult for corals to be resilient to natural and anthropogenic changes and stress.

Pollution is one of the most significant threats to coral reefs worldwide. Pollutants enter the water by runoff, development, agricultural activities, and simply…us. Each year hundreds of thousands of people head to the beach to play, to dive, to marvel at the beautiful reefs. While we are protecting ourselves from the sun and UV rays with chemical sunscreen, we are also contaminating the ocean and nearby reefs. It is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in the ocean each year! Don’t be confused and think that this is what is single-handedly killing coral reefs, but it plays a huge role in the health of coral reefs in high exposure areas. Our pollution is undermining the health of coral, making it unable to resist and recover from other threats like climate change, ocean acidification, and overfishing.

How our sunscreen is contaminating reefs?

Oxybenzone and octinoxate are two ingredients found in many of the major sunscreen brands. One of the two chemicals can be found in more than 70% of all sunscreens on the market. Oxybenzone has been well studied and known to be toxic to coral and larvae, for quite some time. It is toxic and often fatal to coral by disrupting the symbiotic relationship with coral and algae, known as zooxanthellae. The zooxanthellae are photosynthetic and provide the coral with nutrients and vibrant colors, while the coral provides protection, carbon dioxide, and water necessary for photosynthesis. When corals are stressed, they release their zooxanthellae and become white, or bleached. Sometimes corals can recover from a temporary bleaching event, but with numerous stressors, their resilience is pushed.

It has been determined that oxybenzone enters rivers, streams, lakes, and marine environments from our chemical sunscreens that wash off. It causes bleaching, DNA damage, and death in coral. Juveniles are extremely sensitive, and high exposure reefs are at a high risk. These chemicals are affecting coral, but also levels are being found in the tissues of several other species. Biomagnification occurs as oxybenzone concentration increases in the tissues of organisms as it travels up the food web. It has been found in the bird eggs, humans, and other marine mammals. It can cause skin rashes, developmental issues, hormonal disruption, and behavior changes.

In 2015, a study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology found that oxybenzone at very low levels is toxic to coral reefs. Toxicity occurs at a concentration as low as 62 parts per trillion. This is comparable to just one drop in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools. In this study, measurements of oxybenzone levels in the seawater where collected in coral reefs in Hawaii and the US Virgin Islands. These locations could get 2,000 to 5,000 beachgoers in a day. The study found oxybenzone at concentrations ranging from 800 parts per trillion to 1.4 parts per million in some areas. That’s more than 12 times the concentrations that are toxic to coral!

So, what can we do?
Earlier this month, Hawaii became the first state to ban chemical sunscreen, to protect our coral reefs. In this ban, the Governor, David Ige, banned the sale, offer, or distribution of sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate. By the year 2021, Hawaii hopes to be chemical-sunscreen free. This ban has sparked interest and created waves. Other counties and coastal communities are taking the same steps to protect nearby reefs. Bonaire recently declared a ban, while there is momentum to do the same in California, Colorado, Florida and US Virgin Islands. Govenor Ige stated, “this bill is a small first step worldwide, to really caring about our corals and our reefs in a way that no one else anywhere in the world has done.” This change is not going to reverse all the harm we have done to reefs worldwide, but it is one small thing that can alleviate some of the stress on them.

Since this ban, several people have spoken out about the potential public health risk involved. Mineral sunscreens with titanium oxide and zinc oxide are safe, effective, and very accessible. Mineral sunscreens have come a long way in the last few years. They can be found in major stores and are reasonably priced unlike several years ago. When looking for a good alternative, check the labels for simple ingredients. Choose lotion options over spray. Try brands like All Good, Kiss My Face, and Stream2Sea. Stream2Sea does an exceptional job at educating consumers about the effects of oxybenzone on reefs, and how we can all make a difference through smart choices. Learn more about their products here We have so many options when it comes to smarter and safer alternatives. We should make the change because we can.

This sunscreen ban and growing the movement is something we can all do right now. Coral reefs are dealing with so many threats like climate change, ocean acidification, and overfishing. So, let’s take a little bit of the stress off! All of us play a part in the conservation of our ocean and the countless resources it provides us with. Our actions and activities affect the ocean, freshwater bodies, and the organisms that inhabit them. Even when we are landlocked, in the desert we impact these ecosystems. What we put on or in our bodies, eventually reaches the waters around us. Changing from chemical sunscreen to a mineral, reef-safe alternative, is not going to save reefs…BUT it is a small step in the right direction. We need to make changes in our daily lives that have our natural environment in mind. We need to be conscious consumers. We need to understand that we are so connected to nature. We need to see ourselves and actions in the big picture.

Let us take this sunscreen ban as a small win for coral conservation. Let us use it as momentum to educate and bring awareness to the critical threats coral reefs are facing. It is a change that we all can make to protect our reefs, our oceans, and our future.


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