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Is Your Sunscreen Hurting Our Coral Reefs?

June 28, 2018

Protect yourself and the planet this summer

Ahh, sweet summertime—the time of year we visit the beach and generously lather on layers of sunscreen time and time again to protect our skin from the sun’s rays.

While sunscreen does a great job protecting humans from the sun, research has shown that some compounds found in many common sunscreens are harmful to our coral reefs. According to researchers, the chemicals in sunscreen can awaken coral viruses causing coral to expel their life-giving algae. Without this algae, the coral bleaches and often dies as a result.

What’s even worse is that an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in coral reefs each year.

So, what should snorkelers, divers, and beachgoers do? Read the label on your sunscreen. Just because the bottle advertises itself as “reef safe” doesn’t mean it truly is. According to PADI, the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, you should avoid reef-damaging substances such as oxybenzone, butylparaben, octinoxate and 4-methylbenzylidine camphor, all of which have been shown to cause coral bleaching even at low levels.

“It is surprising how little sunscreen you need to kill coral.” Miles Silman, Wake Forest professor of biology and Director of the Center for Energy, Environment, and Sustainability said.

Each spring break, Silman leads a group of Wake Forest students in research at Lighthouse Reef Atoll where they study the ecology and conservation biology of coral reefs. This past trip to Belize, Silman required all students to use reef-safe sunscreens when diving and beach-going. While pollution, development, and overfishing undisputedly cause a greater threat to ocean coral, every precaution should be taken to protect these biologically diverse ecosystems.

“I was totally unaware of how much damage my sunscreen was doing,” Gabby Pulsinelli, a graduate student who studied in Belize with Silman, said. “It opened my eyes to see how such a small thing like sunscreen— something we’ve been trained to liberally apply— could have such a big impact on coral reefs and thus entire ecosystems.”

So, before heading into the water this summer, be sure to check your sunscreen bottle to avoid reef-damaging substances. Together, PADI and Project AWARE have gathered a list of sunscreens that are both reef-safe and people-safe.