Is the sunscreen you're about to lather on coral reef-friendly?
That's the question marine scientists are hoping people will ask themselves in the future before jumping in to explore one of the ocean's great wonders. An international team of researchers, including those from the U.S. National Aquarium and NOAA, have discovered a troubling link between a common ingredient in sunscreens and die-off in coral reefs.
The chemical oxybenzone, a UV-filtering compound, has been found to be extremely toxic to coral. And it doesn't take much: As little as one drop in a volume of water larger than 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools is potent enough to cause damage.
“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” team leader Craig Downs of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia told Phys.org. “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.”
According to the published study, oxybenzone exposure can lead to DNA damage and "coral bleaching," which robs reefs of valuable algae and nutrition. Young coral larvae, however, seem the suffer the worst fate, with the chemical effectively "trapping them in their own skeleton," and rendering them unable to float away and establish new colonies.
While the varieties of sunscreens that contain natural and nontoxic ingredients has risen in recent years, the researchers say oxybenzone is still a primary component of some 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide. Indeed, a May 2015 report from the Environmental Working Group analyzing 1,700 sunscreen products found 80 percent as either ineffective or containing ingredients harmful to your health. The chemical they singled out? None other than oxybenzone.
So what can you do to avoid skin cancer but also not harm one of the planet's most vital ecosystems? The EWG has a list of 235 sunscreen, lip balms and moisturizers that do not contain oxybenzone or other worrisome ingredients. Wearing clothing and hats with UV-filtering properties can also offer protection independent of chemical sunscreens."Wear rash guards or scuba wetsuits and skip all the hygienic products when you go diving," John Fauth of the University of Central Florida told Phys.org. "If we could do it for a week at a time, people can certainly forgo it for a few hours to help protect these reefs for our children and their children to see."