Sunscreen Contributing to Coral Reef Death

The common sunscreen ingredient, Oxybenzone, may play a part in the destruction of coral reefs around the world. It’s not the first time that the effects of pollution on coral reefs have been studied, but this time it’s causing a wave of reactions as a common sunscreen ingredient has been implicated.

First, let’s talk about what oxybenzone is. Oxybenzone, the supposed offending culprit for killing corals, is a very popular UV filter. It’s a popular sunscreen filter because it is effective at stopping UVA rays which penetrate deep into the skin, causing premature aging, and may increase the risk of several types of skin cancers. We’ve always advocated broad spectrum protection--sunscreens that provide protection from both UVA and UVB rays. Traditionally, it has been a challenge to stop the longer wave UVA rays. Oxybenzone is used in a lot of sunscreen products due to its flexibility, and effectiveness.

When the Washington Post wrote about this study others quickly followed, and now it’s caught the attention of the Internet, with the comments section degenerating into political poo-flinging. At the same time, the comments section is often a reflection of people's concerns and fears, so we picked out and summarized the most common questions and concerns here.

Is this another “ideological” study from the left?

To some people, it seems, science itself is ideology. Reason didn’t lead them to this belief in the first place, so it doesn’t seem all that likely that reason will alter their belief. We’re not suggesting that the study can’t be questioned. Far from it, but it is also not a conspiracy, and there have been previous studies that were concerned about the effects of sunscreens on coral reefs. This particular study was published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, and is a peer reviewed publication. Is it 100% reliable, and conclusive? No. More studies will need to replicate the results.

If a small amount can kill corals, how can it possibly be safe for humans?

Humans are not corals. The effects of oxybenzone on the human body have been studied extensively. Is there any controversy? Certainly. Some groups like the Environmental Working Group, are concerned about its long-term effect on humans. Is it likely to be seriously harmful? No. Might it have some negative long-term effects? Possibly, but serious negative consequences seem relatively unlikely given how long oxybenzone has already been in the market. In the U.S. and Canada, the FDA and Health Canada allows oxybenzone to be used up to a concentration of 6% in cosmetic products.

Are physical sunblocks like Zinc Oxide and Titanium Oxide the answer?

Physical sunscreens are an alternate mechanism to protecting the skin. These defect light off of the skin while traditional or chemical sunscreens absorb the UV light, and turn them into harmless heat energy. There are advantages and disadvantages to both methods, and some sunscreens use a combination of these two mechanisms.

Is this concerning, and if so, what can I do?

Certainly, this is concerning. Corals are an example of a unique and diverse ocean habitat for many marine species and plays an important part of the ecosystem, protects the shoreline from erosion, and contributes billions of dollars to fishing and tourism around the world. They are also being threatened from ocean acidification through global warming, and environmental pollution. While we strongly advocate the use of sunscreen at the beach, you most likely won’t need it if you’re at a rare location in the world, diving to get a view of the reefs. You’ll be protected by your scuba suit.