Is your Sunscreen damaging the Coral Reefs?

Up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen,

oil and lotion are washed off scuba divers, snorkelers, swimmers and surfers into our oceans each year. Coral reefs and surrounding environments suffer deeply with pollutants contained in sunscreen. On Gozo, in the Blue Hole, we can see sunscreen floating on the surface due to the number of swimmers that congregate there.

A study from 2015 confirmed that chemicals in sunscreen cause damage to our coral reefs in many ways. On popular beaches and reefs, we find high levels of the chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate.  Chemicals wash off beach-goers and water active humans skin directly into the ocean. When we take a shower, sunscreen arrives into our oceans via water discharge and treatment plants. As a result of this, we have a massive cycle of pollutants in our waters.

These chemicals damage coral reefs in a variety of ways. They contribute to coral bleaching and coral mortality and cause adult male fish to become female. They increase reproductive diseases in fish and mammals and cause neurological behavioural changes in fish.

The ingredients of sunscreen listed below are highly damaging at very low concentration. Here, just one drop in 6.5 Olympic-size swimming pools has the following toxic effects:

Oxybenzone: (Benzophenone-3, BP-3)

It disrupts coral reproduction, damages coral DNA and is known to cause coral bleaching. There are over 3500 sunscreen products, worldwide that contain this chemical. With over 14,000 tons of sunscreen ending up on coral reefs around the globe annually, it is becoming evident that the law is about to change.


This preservative shows to cause coral bleaching.

Octinoxate: (Ethylhexyl methoxycinnamate)

Also causes coral bleaching

4-Methyl benzylidene camphor: (4MBC)

This ingredient is banned in the USA and Japan, sadly it is allowed in Europe and Canada. This chemical causes coral bleaching.

In Hawaii, a new bill prohibits the sale and distribution of any sunscreen containing these two chemicals without a medical prescription. Hopefully, it will be passed worldwide to ban the use of these substances.

Sadly, it does not stop visitors from bringing sunscreens to Hawaii that contain those ingredients. However, it is up to each individual to look for reef-safe sunscreen and follow Hawaii’s great example. Take a quick look here at the recent report and you can determine how damaging sunscreen is for the ocean.

Thankfully there are a variety of reef-safe sunscreens available on the market

Endangered are our coral reefs, marine species and fish. The eco-systems, our wildlife along with fauna and flora all become caught up in this cycle of pollutants.

Below, we consider these chemicals as environmental hazards and pollutants to our oceans:

  • Any form of microplastic sphere or beads.
  • Any nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.
  • Oxybenzone
  • Octinoxate
  • 4-methylbenzylidene camphor
  • Octocrylene
  • Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)
  • Methylparaben
  • Ethylparaben
  • Propylparaben
  • Butylparaben
  • Benzylparaben
  • Triclosan

What can you do to help?

These studies show that sunscreen is causing great problems for the survival of our coral reefs. These findings should be taken seriously. For example, use good judgement and check the contents of your sunscreen before you purchase it. Ocean-friendly sunscreens are readily available, all we need to do is look and check.

To help protect yourself, a T-shirt or Rashguard helps to combat sunburn. It is cheaper and environmentally friendly.

Help save our oceans around the world, and protect what we all love…the sea!