Is Your Sunscreen Destroying Coral Reefs?


I just finished reading an article in Time Magazine’s Scientific Discoveries on how the chemicals in sunscreens are part of a long list of threats destroying Coral Reefs. Skin Therapists are consistent with reminding clients to apply sunscreen for protection against the damaging effects of ultra violet radiation and the prevention of skin cancers. I’ve certainly talked about harmful ingredients — particularly oxybenoze — with clients, but haven’t always emphasized the importance of avoiding oxybenzone at all costs! A great reminder for me!

Many Canadians head south for a short reprieve away from the cold. A few days ago, I returned from holiday in the Dominican Republic. Each morning after breakfast I would settle into my shaded lounger, apply a generous amount of sunscreen  and chill on the beach reading, people watching and swimming in the beautiful ocean.

Twice daily the Dive Center at the resort would prepare to take a group of scuba divers out to explore the various coral reefs in the area. Admittedly, I was a little envious I wasn’t joining them but I have had the pleasure of experiencing the delicate and fascinating ecosystem of many coral reefs in my life. For non-divers, many resorts will have small reefs close by that guests can venture to for snorkeling.

People feel good knowing that they are protecting themselves and their children by applying sunscreen. The issue is what’s IN the sunscreen that may be causing harm to our health and the environment.

The Time article states that researchers found the chemical oxybenzone has toxic effects on young coral that cause endocrine disruption, DNA damage and death of coral, among other problems. Oxybenzone also exacerbates coral bleaching, a process by which coral reject symbiotic organisms and lose their color. Bleaching has been particularly prevalent in recent years due to rising sea temperatures.

Between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reef areas around the world each year. That’s a lot of sunscreen, considering how little it takes to cause toxic effects. According to the new research, toxicity occurs at a concentration of 62 parts per trillion. That’s the equivalent of a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool.

Luckily, the Environmental Working Group (EWG) makes it easier for us to find those useful products. When choosing a sunscreen, look for the following active ingredients: zinc oxide or titanium dioxide (safe mineral sunscreens). Avoid products with oxybenzone and vitamin A (or retinyl palmitate), which paradoxically may increase your skin cancer risk. And choose one without fragrance, as some fragrances can also act as hormone disruptors.

In conclusion, be mindful of your product choices. It will have a greater impact not just on your personal health but the life and vitality of our oceans.