Statistics show that between 6,000 - 14,000 tons of sunscreen washes off swimmers, scuba divers, and snorkelers into coral reef environments each year. Sunscreens are made up of a variety of complex chemicals, and as you enter the water after usage, they may begin to wash and spread to the marine environment. When sprayed on the beach, fresh aerosol sunscreens can also sit on the sand and be swept into the ocean at a later date. The apparently harmless act of sunscreen application has now compelled scientists to notice the damage done to the environment.
When you swim with sunscreen on, chemicals like oxybenzone present in almost all sunscreens, can seep into the water where they're absorbed by corals. These substances contain nano-particles that can disrupt coral's reproduction and growth cycles, ultimately leading to bleaching. Coral bleaching is a process whereby the coral colonies lose their color, either due to the loss of pigments by microscopic algae (zooxanthellae) living in symbiosis with their host organisms (polyps), or because these zooxanthellae have been expelled.
A 2016 study, published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, found that oxybenzone (also known as BP-3) is "highly toxic to juvenile corals and other marine life," according to NOAA. Persistent oxybenzone concentrations in water can cause permanent DNA damage to coral, preventing its recovery from storms, sedimentation and climate change, reduce a coral’s lifespan and immunity to disease, as well as disrupt normal development and reproduction.
Some sunscreen chemicals, in certain situations, cause coral larvae to stop swimming, change shape and ultimately die. Oxybenzone has been shown to be an endocrine disruptor, causing the outer epidermal cells of coral larvae to turn into skeleton at the wrong stage in their development (Downs et al., 2015). Studies on other organisms have similarly shown that exposure to sunscreen UV filters such as benzophenones, camphor derivatives and cinnamate derivatives induce various endocrine disrupting effects.
Oxybenzone prevents coral in its larval stage from reaching maturity as it disrupts the development of coral hormones and further causes the coral to produce excess calcium carbonate, meaning that it encases itself in its own skeleton and the larvae are unable to reproduce and eventually die.
Want to make a difference today? Start by following these simple guidelines
- While at the beach, wear sun protective swimwear and a large brimmed hat. This will ensure minimal use of sunscreen.
- Avoid spray-on sunscreens, and use safer mineral-based sunscreens like zinc oxide or titanium oxide.
- Look for marine safe products, such as those marked with the “Marine Safe” icon.
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