We know that our ocean’s coral reefs are under attack, but could toxic levels of sunscreen really be to blame? Should beachgoers stop wearing sunscreen in an effort to help save the reefs of our oceans?

Before cell phones, social media, and dare I date myself, the internet, I was a teenage girl who occasionally basked in the sun lathered in baby oil. Driven by magazine and television images that tan skin was beautiful skin, the importance of wearing sunscreen never crossed my mind. Regardless of my blonde hair and freckled complexion, I didn’t wise up that I needed to wear sunscreen everyday until I was well into my 20’s.

Thanks to friends and family in dermatology, I have learned to wear sunscreen on my exposed skin every single day. I am grateful to have avoided skin cancer thus far but my skin is damaged, and some of this damage is irreversible. Reading that sunscreen could be harming our world’s reefs had me intrigued. Could sunscreen, something that is now helping keep my skin safe, really be causing irreversible damage to coral reefs?

Oxybenzone, friend or foe


A recent scientific study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology states that oxybenzone, an ingredient found in many sun protection lotions, poses a hazard to coral reef conservation and threatens the resiliency of coral reefs to climate change (2015). Oxybenzone, tested in both darkness and light, was said to have transformed the larval form of coral and cultured primary cells to a ‘deformed condition.’ With increased exposure, the multiple species of coral were also said to have been ‘bleached’ as a direct result of the chemical.   The authors of this study found oxybenzone present around popular reefs in Hawaii and the Virgin Islands therefore the correlation was made that sunscreen (with oxybenzone) has significant harmful effects on coral reef.

These coral lab tests however were limiting to the degree that they were not performed in a proper sea-life environment. The salt water in the tests was artificial. “They put tiny bits of coral into aquaria and then added some chemicals. It’s not surprising coral don’t like chemicals thrown at them,” said Terry Hughes, director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University. How could an isolated laboratory environment confirm that oxybenzone is linked to global coral reef detriment when these lab corals were only exposed to oxybenzone?

Similar questions about oxybenzone have been raised among consumers regarding what happens when sunscreen with this ingredient is absorbed into the skin and reacts with the sun. Oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3 (or BP-3), protects against the damaging effects of ultraviolet (UV) light. A lab study using laboratory models of skin suggested that under certain conditions, sunscreens with oxybenzone and other ultra violet filters could lead to free-radical damage to the skin, a process that in theory could lead to skin cancer (Skin Cancer Foundation).

chart describing chemical ingredients in sunscreen and their UVA UVB protection

photo: badgerbalm.com

In parallel to the oxybenzone/coral reef lab study, some skin care researchers don’t find this skin lab test a reliable indicator of what would happen in real people’s skin. Skin damage in this lab occurred only when ultraviolet light reached sunscreen that had penetrated these ‘models’ of skin. “It may seem counterintuitive, but by reapplying sunscreen we protect ourselves from UV light reaching any of the UV-filters that may be penetrated to the skin,” said Kerry M. Hanson, senior research scientist at UC Riverside authoring this lab report. “At this point,” she went on to say, “I don’t think there’s enough evidence to firmly claim that sunscreens containing oxybenzone are unsafe.”

Our oceans and our skin need protection

The demise of our coral reefs lies heaviest with problems like pollution, destructive fishing practices, and rising sea temperatures. There are many remote global areas of coral reef, untouched by humans, where reef destruction and mass bleaching is occurring and oxybenzone couldn’t have anything to do with it. “Sunscreen, because of its source, is far less of a problem than run off of pesticides in rivers,” said Terry Hughes. In summary, ALL toxins, not just oxybenzone, that reach our oceans will negatively impact the resilience of coral reefs and ocean life.

Sunscreen, even those containing oxybenzone, is vital to protect against sunburn and skin cancer. Can you consider using sunscreens without oxybenzone and related harsh chemicals? YES! So whether you are looking to be chemical free, or just committing to wearing sunscreen everyday, both camps agree that titanium dioxide and zinc oxide sunscreens are safe and effective.

Other sunscreen tips to consider

  • Check the SPF for UVB protection. The SPF number indicates how well a sunscreen protects against ultraviolet B (UVB) rays. It’s recommended to use sunscreens with an SPF of 30 or higher.
  • Look for UVA, broad spectrum, or multi-spectrum protection.
  • Look for water resistance. Sunscreens are generally not waterproof so they will wear off and you need to reapply regularly.
  • Sunscreen is only one way to protect the skin. A hat, staying out of the sun, avoiding the hottest part of the day, and covering up are all part of the story to stay safe in the sun.

People tend to protect what they love.  So love your skin and love your oceans.



WebMD: Sun Exposure: Avoiding Sunburn and Sun Damage

Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology

Skin Cancer Foundation: When Sunscreen Safety is Called into Question