How Your Sunscreen May Be Killing Coral Reefs

Nov 10, 2015

Even though we’re heading into winter, it’s a good time to think about sunscreen. A new study finds that the sunscreen most of us slather on contains an ingredient that is killing coral reefs around the world. The lead author of the study lives in Amherst County, and WMRA’s Jessie Knadler spoke to him to get the lowdown on the shady side of sunscreen.

A main ingredient in more than 3,500 sunscreen products is a chemical called oxybenzone. The personal care industry loves it because it’s one of the few available sunscreen ingredients that protects skin from both ultraviolet A rays, which age the skin, and ultraviolet B rays, which burn. You can find it in brands ranging from Coppertone to L’Oreal Paris to Hawaiian Tropic.  It’s also found in lipstick, mascara and shampoo.

But there’s a less than sunny component to all this amazing sun protection. Oxybenzone is destroying coral reefs around the globe.  This is according to a study published last month in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology. The study’s lead author is Dr. Craig Downs of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Clifford, Virginia.

DR. CRAIG DOWNS: We did this study in response to a forensic investigation of why coral reefs were dying in the Caribbean, specifically, within the Virgin Islands National Park. And at several of the sites we didn’t have a very good explanation of what was killing the coral reef.

Coral is called the rainforest of the ocean. It’s critical for biodiversity and the environmental health of aquatic life. It contributes billions of dollars each year to local economies through tourism and fishing. The Caribbean has lost 80 percent of its coral reefs in the last 50 years, according to Dr. Downs, due in part to rising ocean temperatures. That’s been linked to what is known as “bleaching,” which is when coral expels algae, turning it completely white, then dies.

But researchers suspected some kind of pollutant was also hastening coral’s demise.  A local vendor on the Caribbean island of St. John overheard Dr. Downs and his team discussing the issue. The vendor approached them and said, “it’s the tourists. Just wait and see what they leave behind.”

DOWNS:  And if you head down to the beach around 4:30, 5 o’clock after all the tourists leave you can see a nice sheen of what looks like an oil slick on the surface of the water. We measured the level of certain chemical compounds in the water and were surprised to see high concentrations of several sunscreen compounds and one of these was oxybenzone.

The study determined that it takes only a tiny amount of sunscreen to damage the coral, the equivalent of a single drop of water in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools. They also determined how oxybenzone destroys the reef.

DR. CRAIG DOWNS:    Oxybenzone is an endocrine disruptor.

It damages the coral’s DNA, causing deformities and inhibiting its ability to reproduce.  It also alters the way organisms grow. Researchers suspect oxybenzone has something to do with why male fish such as bass have been developing female organs. The European Union has already listed oxybenzone on its list of substances that are of great concern and need to be replaced.  The chemical has also been linked to bleaching.

Dr. Downs repeated similar results in Hawaii, but because research for the study was only conducted on two sites, the Virgin Islands and Hawaii, detractors say it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions.

In a press release issued two days after the study’s publication, the Personal Care Products Council, which is a trade organization of 600 cosmetic and personal care product companies, issued a statement saying that “this conclusion is based upon research conducted under laboratory conditions.” This isn’t technically accurate; Dr. Downs conducted his research in the field. The press release goes on to say that coral is being damaged by all sorts of factors -- global warming, unsustainable fishing practices -- and that oxybenzone shouldn’t be singled out. They warn that this study may result in fewer people wearing sunscreen, which is a concern, given that there are nearly 68,000 new cases of melanoma, the deadliest form of skin cancer, resulting in more than 9,000 deaths every year.

But the takeaway from Dr. Downs is fairly straightforward.

DR. DOWNS:   Everyday folks can help prevent the pollution of their environment by using personal care products that don’t contain threatening chemicals.

He recommends using non-nano zinc oxide and non-nano titanium oxide sunscreens instead.

Click here for a list of oxybenzone-free sunscreens.  (*NOTE:  For this link, and the one below, you'll need to also click on the box that says "Continue to EWG.ORG" in the upper right corner of your browser.)

Click here for sunscreens that contain oxybenzone.