You only use a little bit of suncreen — a squeeze of the bottle or two or three sprays. Sure, it has some chemical ingredients, but it won’t kill anyone, right? Wrong. Sunscreen is actually one of the culprits of putting over 60 percent of the planet’s coral reefs in critical danger — and bringing a whole lot of other wildlife down with them.
About 80 percent of reefs in the Caribbean have been lost in the last 50 years, and while coral reefs only occupy one percent of the ocean’s floor, its loss wouldn’t just mean the demise of awe-inspiring nature. Nearly one million species of fish, invertebrates and algae are estimated to live in these “biodiversity hotspots” and they generate billions of dollars yearly to humans via the tourism industry. How can a little bit of sunscreen then be to blame for this much destruction?
Millions of little bits add up
While the quantity of sunscreen one person uses is fairly small, as millions of people visit beaches around the world, that amount adds up quickly. The U.S. National Park Service estimates that between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reef areas around the world each year.
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Coral Reefs are sensitive living beings
While the tons of sunscreen in the ocean are still only equivalent to a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool, reefs are sensitive living beings and it is still more than enough to harm them.
Bleaching is a death sentence
The beautiful colors that coral reefs are famous for are what actually keeps them alive. Corals are made up of tiny soft-bodied animals called polyps. Inside the polyps lives a form of algae that uses photosynthesis to feed the coral and keep it alive. The algae make the coral colorful and as generations of these polyps grow attached and close to one another, they create the antler shaped reefs on the floor of the ocean.
Oxybenzone, one of the UV blocking ingredients in sunscreen, makes the coral sick. When the coral is sick, it expels the algae living in it and without it, the coral loses its color and, very often, its life.
It kills baby coral (and hope for newer generations of coral)
A recent study also found that oxybenzone produces deformities in young coral and alters its DNA so that instead of harboring the life-giving algae inside it, it encases itself in its own skeleton, both leading to death. If young coral die, there’s no way for reefs to replenish themselves.
So what now?
Should humans then risk cancer to protect coral reefs? Thankfully, one must not make that choice and, according to the National Park Service, reading the labels on sunscreen bottles should suffice. Sunscreens with titanium oxide or zinc oxide have not been found to harm reefs, and the nonprofit Environmental Working Group has an extensive list of coral-friendly sunscreens for reference on its website.
Another option is to cover up with clothing like a wetsuit instead of slathering on sunscreen, which keeps all body parts covered and the water clear of residue.