We are all increasingly aware of sun safety and the importance of protecting our own and our children’s skin from the sun’s damaging rays. But are we aware of the damage that many sunscreens are doing to the environment and, specifically, our oceans?
Coral reefs are some of the most diverse ecosystems in the world, home to thousands of species of marine life, and popular destinations for tourists, snorkellers and scuba divers, due to their colourful coral and beautiful fish species.
After decades of research and testing to produce the most effective sunscreens, it has become apparent that two of the active ingredients in many sunscreens, oxybenzone and octinoxate, have a negative effect on our coral reefs. All over the world, coral reefs are threatened by pollution and many popular destinations have the most at-risk coral, including Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the bays of Hawaii.
Research has found that just a very small amount of sunscreen containing oxybenzone is toxic to coral, causing it to break down, lose its nutrients and turn white. This coral bleaching can lead to the coral dying. It is also harmful to some species of reef fish as well as coral larvae.
It is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash into our oceans each year, polluting precious marine life.
While sunscreen isn’t the only threat to our coral reefs (climate change is their single biggest threat), we should still do what we can to play our part in protecting the environment. If choosing our sunscreens more wisely plays even a small part in preserving coral reefs, then it is definitely a change worth making.
Key West, Florida and Hawaii have recently passed laws (effective 2021) banning the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, and the western Pacific nation of Palau currently bans 10 different chemicals that are harmful to their coral reefs. Not only will this force people to consider the environment and look at alternative reef-safe sunscreens, it also raises awareness around the world, where other nations may decide to follow their lead. Whilst humans might be responsible for this contamination in our oceans, we have the opportunity to help repair these fragile underwater ecosystems.