G+ YouTube Pinterest Instagram
The Gap Year Blog

When Did Sunscreen Become an Enemy of Coral Reefs?

13 Feb 2019 11:30 AM

Photo Credit: Flickr| Patrick Pelletier

Edited with Permission by Frontier


In 1944, at the height of the war in the Pacific Ocean, US soldiers were becoming painfully aware of the damages sun causes to skin. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers in the Pacific experienced severe sunburns and blisters from being exposed to the more direct rays of sun light for long periods of time. This was something many of the American soldiers weren’t used to, causing them to struggle significantly with the burning sun. Something was to be done.

Benjamin Green, a Florida airman and pharmacist, came to the rescue and created the first widely-used sunscreen for the US troops during the 1940s. The new sunscreen, Red Vet Pet, was later bought and commercialized by a company called Coppertone, bringing this life changing and saving sunscreen to a wider market. This was when the fight against the ever-growing number of skin damages and cancer caused by the sun began.

On February 5th in 2019, USA has taken a different turn on sunscreens. On that day, The Key West City Commission voted, with 6-1 votes, to ban sales of all the sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The ban, a final solution in an attempt to slow down the dying of corals, will come into effect in 2021. The Great Florida Reef outside of Key West is the largest coral reef in the continental USA. The progressive vote came after years of scientific research that has helped to reveal the effects these chemicals have on coral reefs, more specifically coral bleaching

Photo Credit: Flickr

A 2016 study by Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology focusing on the influence of oxybenzone chemical levels on corals in Hawaii and US Virgin Island concluded that the chemical ‘poses a hazard to coral reef conservation and threatens the resiliency of coral reefs to climate change’. Another study from 2008 by Environmental Health Perspectives came to the conclusion that even low levels of sunscreen ingredients, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, cause ‘rapid and complete bleaching of hard coral’. This has become an increasing concern as coral reefs around the globe, not just in the USA, are disappearing at an alarming rate. 

Key West is not the first place to wake up to the real, frankly quite alarming, state of coral reefs.  Last year, Hawaii became the first state in the USA to ban sales and distribution of sunblocks containing these two chemicals. The ban will also come to effect in 2021. 

Likewise, the government of Palau has stepped up its game to protect its vulnerable corals by banning 10 ingredients commonly found in sunscreens and skincare products by 2020. It is set to become the first country to ban sunscreens.

These sunscreen bans have started a dived discussion about the benefits and importance of sunscreens. Many countries surrounded by coral reefs are considering similar actions to hold back the rapid disappearance of corals, but various organizations and dermatologists are concerned that banning these chemicals will lead to a surge in skin syndromes, like melanoma. A number of the most popular sunscreens on the market contain these, now widely banned, ingredients.

However, these sorts of actions are becoming more necessary every day as various factors keep coral bleaching ongoing. Sunscreen chemicals that dissolve to water from skin, even in small amounts, aggravates bleaching, making the reefs colourless and, eventually, lifeless. These chemicals do not only cause and exacerbate coral bleaching but DNA damages and disruptions. 

Based on comparison of recent satellite photos and historic charts that date back hundreds of years, it can be seen how much of what used to be vibrant corals have now turned into grey, lifeless corals skeletons. Nearly half of Florida Reef has now disappeared and it is not the only place where similar effects are seen at this pace. This is concerning as a quarter of marine species find their home in coral reefs. Reefs are considered as diverse habitat for marine life as Amazon rainforests are for terrestrial beings.

Photo Credit: Flickr

The rapid disappearance of corals is an entity of several factors, not just hazardous chemicals found in sunscreens. Climate change has made it ever more difficult to sustain the biodiversity of reefs. With the temperature of oceans constantly on a rise, many species have been forced to adjust, but for corals, this is not an option as warmer temperatures just increase their stress which is one of the main triggers of bleaching. Factors such as overfishing, pollution, unsustainable tourism and ocean acidification, are equally to blame. Most of them are linked to human-caused climate change. 

Ocean acidification, for instance, is solely caused by the escalated amounts of carbon emissions released into the air, some of which eventually gets absorbed into the oceans. High acid levels mean tougher life for most marine life, like corals, which start to slowly dissolve if the levels increase too much. Because there are several aspects to the loss of diversity of coral reefs, tackling just one of them is not enough, but focusing on decreasing CO2 emissions and increasing sustainable development in fishing industries and tourism are an essential start.

Beyond the biodiversity and environmental aspects of maintaining the reefs, corals offer a lucrative income for costal towns. In addition to the concern of losing such a valuable part of marine life, the discussion has been steered by the desire to preserve coral reefs for income. According to Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History, industries based around corals, like tourism, medicine and food, make estimated 30 billion US dollars annually. Snorkelling and diving, popular activities tourists opt to pay for in vibrant reefs areas, can pose a threat if done unsustainably, raising a question of which, preserving reefs for biodiversity or revenue, is more important.

Photo Credit: Flickr

Currently, most of the sunscreens on the high street contain harmful chemical to corals, but there still alternative options to protect your skin from UV radiation. Zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, which can be found in some sunscreens, create a similar surface on skin that blocks rays from the sun but don’t seem to harm corals. Researchers are not recommending giving up on sunscreen completely but to find alternatives or to wear long sleeves to prevent sunburns.

Climate change is affecting all the aspects of marine life. Corals may seem like a tiny part of ecosystem because they only ‘amount to less than one quarter of 1% of the entire marine environment’ but they cater a home for millions of species. If the decrease of reefs continues at this speed and nothing is done, the world is facing an unprecedented loss of diversity that will be difficult to turn around.

By Tiia Kärkkäinen - Online Journalism Intern

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!