Despite being a significant invention for humans in the fight against skin cancer, sun screen is killing the world’s coral reef system, according to a new study. Led by Craig Downs of the non-profit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virgina, a research team from the University of Central Florida found that a chemical compound in many sun screen lotions called oxybenzone can greatly damage these underwater ecosystems.
The compound effectively helps protect your skin from the “bad”‘ UV rays, and can be found in thousands of sunscreen brands around the world. However, the new research suggests it can be deadly for young and adult coral, especially when exposed to high concentrations.
“The chemical, oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), is found in more than 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide. It pollutes coral reefs via swimmers who wear sunscreen or wastewater discharges from municipal sewage outfalls and coastal septic systems.” explains Omri Bronstein, a researcher from the Department of Zoology at Tel Aviv University.
Unsurprisingly, the largest concentrations of this chemical were found in regions with the most tourists like the Caribbean and Hawaii. Reefs 5 to 20 miles from the coastline are extremely affected by water that was contaminated by sunscreen.
The chemical is the biggest threat to “juvenile corals”, the researchers say, acting as an “endocrine disrupter,” which forces undeveloped corals to cocoon themselves in their own skeletons, eventually causing them to die. The team added that oxybenzone also makes corals “more vulnerable to bleaching at lower water temperatures”, meaning they are not as equipped to adjust to the warmer ocean temperatures brought on by climate change, according to The Standard Daily. Furthermore, the chemical was also found to leave a long-term imprint of damage on the corals’ DNA, obstructing the marine invertebrate’s ability to reproduce.
The researchers say that it doesn’t even take a lot of the chemical to leave an impact on the corals.
“We found the lowest concentration to see a toxicity effect was 62 parts per trillion—equivalent to a drop of water in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools,” read the study.
The average beach-goer will use between two and four ounces of sunscreen before going to swim, according to conservative estimates. Thus, when you take into account the thousands of swimmers that bring sunscreen into the ocean everyday, the outcome is nearly 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions finding its way to coral reefs across the globe each year.
Additionally, scientists recently discovered that the oxybenzone concentrations in the U.S. Virgin Islands is roughly 23 times higher than the minimum level–which is seen as toxic for corals.
These findings are shocking, especially because we are only figuring this out now. Who knows just how much irreversible damage we’ve caused the world’s coral reefs already.
However, there are ways to try and lessen the blow, so long as we start immediately. Certain brands of sunscreen do not contain oxybenzone, and they can be found in a list on the non-profit Environmental Working Group’s website.
“Although the use of sunscreen is recognized as important for protection from the harmful effects of sunlight, there are alternatives—including other chemical sunscreens, as well as wearing sun clothing on the beach and in the water,” encourage the researchers.