Coral Reefs Are Suffering: We Must Stop Using Traditional Sunscreen

Be cautious of what you let into the ocean, for all our sakes.

Pink coral reefs ocean health fish

Have you unknowingly been killing coral and endangering marine life? Unfortunately, many people remain unaware that traditional sunscreen is not eco-compatible and contains toxic chemicals that are tremendously harmful to coral reefs. Although corals are often mistaken for non-living things, they are, in fact, invaluable and irreplaceable living animals. Increased awareness of issues such as this one is crucial in order to diminish the harm that we — often obliviously — cause to the precious aquatic environment.

How Does Sunscreen Damage Coral Reefs?

The algae that live in coral tissue provide nutrients that are essential for the coral’s survival. Among other culprits, such as increased water temperature, the harmful substances in traditional sunscreen cause the algae to abandon the tissue, which leaves the coral unprotected, causes it to become white (bleached), and disallows it to thrive. Although not every bleached coral is dead, the bleaching causes such distress that it is more susceptible to disease and subject to mortality.

What Ingredients are Harmful?

Sunscreen advertising is unregulated, and so some sunscreens may be deceptively advertised as ‘reef-safe’. Therefore, it is wise to check the ingredients list to ensure it does not include reef-damaging substances such as oxybenzone (the most harmful), octinoxate, butylparaben, and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor (4-MBC). Even at low levels, these have been shown to cause coral bleaching.

In 2018, Hawaii became the first to pass a bill banning sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. This legislation came into effect on January 1st, 2021. Hopefully, this ban will soon be implemented elsewhere, as it is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter oceans worldwide each year.

Can You Protect Your Skin and the Ocean at the Same Time?

For many people, choosing a sunscreen is a thoughtless task, with consideration only given to the price and SPF level, and the sole intention being to protect our skin. Unfortunately, however, sunscreen can do a lot of damage — perhaps not to you, but to the aquatic environment. So, can we protect our skin and the ocean at the same time? The short answer is yes. Unfortunately, no sunscreen is entirely safe for corals. However, those with harsh and damaging chemicals can and should be avoided.

White coral reef ocean fish

How Can You Identify Reef-Friendly Sunscreen?

The principal ingredient to look for in a reef-friendly sunscreen is non-nano zinc oxide, a skin-friendly ingredient in many of the Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) top-rated products. To be considered reef-safe, zinc oxide in sunscreen must be non-nano, as non-nano particles have a diameter greater than 100 nanometers, which restricts them from being ingested by corals.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) prohibits companies from branding their product as waterproof, as there is no waterproof sunscreen. However, there is water-resistant sunscreen, and although this does not mean that it lacks toxic substances, it is less harmful than non-water-resistant sunscreen as fewer ingredients wash off bodies and enter oceans. Reef-friendly sunscreen is safe for humans and has the same SPF levels as non-reef-friendly sunscreen, making it just as effective. It should be noted that sunscreen branded as biodegradable or eco-friendly does not always mean reef-friendly, so the ingredients should still be checked.

Why is it Important to Protect Coral Reefs?

Coral reefs are essential for many reasons and are in desperate need of protection. According to the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum and research complex, approximately one-quarter of all ocean species depend on corals for food and shelter. Not only do they contribute to marine life balance, but they are also of value to humankind as they:

  • break the force of waves during storms and hurricanes

  • prevent coastal erosion and flooding

  • provide shelter and habitats for a multitude of marine organisms

  • are the source of essential nutrients for marine food chains

  • aid in nutrient recycling

  • prevent the need for costly coastal defences

  • are expected to contribute to future medical advances (such as treatments for cancer and HIV)

What Can You Do for Our Reefs?

Several factors contribute to ocean deterioration, such as climate change (water warming) and rubbish pollution (e.g. the abundance of plastic that disrupts marine life), and it is growing increasingly evident that aquatic life needs our help to restore balance. Therefore, when it comes to something that we can easily control, like simply opting for coral reef-friendly sunscreen, we must do so. Remember, although you may not enter the sea directly with your sunscreen-pasted body, there is still a chance that the harmful substances will reach the ocean through wastewater streams. John Fauth, an associate professor of biology at the University of Central Florida, comments that we often forget to consider where our shower water goes.

We ought to educate ourselves on harmful chemicals to understand the ingredients list before purchasing sunscreen. As mentioned above, reef-friendly sunscreen does not lack skin protection, and so there is no downside. Every single person can make a difference, as every drop counts; one drop of sunscreen in 15 million litres of water is all that is needed to damage a reef.

An alternative to harmful sunscreen is sun-protective clothing, which is clothing produced from a fabric with UV-blocking abilities and is specifically designed to protect the skin from UV damage. Standard summer fabrics have ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) 6, whereas sun-protective materials have UPF 30; this means that if 30 units of UV fall onto the fabric, only one is able to pass through to the skin underneath. According to National Geographic, UV clothing reduces the amount of sunscreen one needs by 90 per cent.

Seaweed sea beach

Is Seaweed the Future of Sunscreen?

Fortunately, completely ocean-friendly sunscreen may be a thing of the future, as recent research has shown that seaweed may be the solution. Researchers at King’s College, London, extracted the mycosporine-like amino acid (MAA), known as palythine, from seaweed to test its ability to protect human skin cells against UV rays. MMAs are natural compounds produced in organisms that live in shallow water, sunlight-rich environments. Using human skin cells in a lab, researchers demonstrated that MMA could effectively absorb harmful rays from the sun, even at very low concentrations, and protect the cells against ultraviolet radiation (UVR) damage. If this proves to be successful, seaweed could be the key to the development of sunscreen that not only protects the skin from sun damage but does so without causing harm to marine ecosystems.

The health of marine life is under threat. Regarding the damage to coral reefs caused by sunscreen, as demonstrated in this article, there are alternatives to choose from that are high in UV protection and do not involve harsh chemicals. It is vital that we spread awareness of this issue, make positive changes, and be increasingly conscious of our impact.

An edition of this article was originally published at

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