Our sunscreen habit is killing the ocean’s coral reefs. Scientists have been justifiably harping on us for years about the effects of human-driven climate change on reefs and marine life. Now there is a new threat to worry about, because new evidence has surfaced that shows just how harmful compounds in sunscreen can be for the delicate ecosystems of our planet’s coral reefs. Luckily, unlike as with global warming, there is an easy solution to the problem.
Oxybenzone is the offending chemical compound found in most commercial sunscreens. While it may do good job at absorbing ultraviolet rays and protecting our hides from the sun, it is downright fatal to coral. And it does not take much to start negatively impacting these creatures. In fact, it is estimated that a single drop of sunscreen in a body of water as large as six Olympic-sized swimming pools can harm coral. And we are sloughing off far more than that – 14,000 tons annually – through direct dipping in the ocean or by washing off the lotions in our showers, which eventually leads to local waterways and then to the ocean.
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association has found that we are in the midst of a widespread coral bleaching event, referring to rising temperatures affecting corals’ algae food source and killing off up to 38% of reefs worldwide, if trends continue. Couple this problem with the harmful results of oxybenzone and we are well on our way to extinguishing the source of 25% of the ocean’s biodiversity.
Craig Downs, co-author of the sunscreen study says, “We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers.” Luckily, each person who wears sunscreen can be a part of the solution by eschewing brands that contain the offending compound and instead using these environmentally responsible brands.