Sunscreen and sunny days go together like peanut butter and jam. But there is some evidence that a buildup of sunscreen lotions in the water could potentially damage the environment.

One report in the New York Times earlier this year indicated sunscreen can be especially hazardous to the health of coral reefs. Some tour companies and parks have gone so far as to ban the use of sunscreens that are not biodegradable, so as to protect these reefs and avoid causing any preventable damage.

But what exactly is the science behind this?

The presence of toxic chemicals

Chemicals contained in most common sunscreens that come off while swimming or even that travel through sewage systems after getting washed off in the shower could be even bigger than climate change with regard to their effect on coral reefs, according to some researchers.

One of these researchers, Craig Downs, conducted a study in 2015 that revealed oxybenzone, one of the most common chemicals found in sunscreen, is toxic to and stunts the growth of some of the symbiotic algae living in coral reefs. These algae give the reefs their vibrant colors and perform other vital functions.

Earlier studies, including one in 2008 published by the journal Environmental Health Perspectives, concluded sunscreen can cause viral infections in coral that leads to bleaching. In that study, researchers estimated up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen are deposited in oceans around the world every year. This also results in changes to the pH of the water, which could affect many types of life in the oceans.

Steps being taken

As people become more aware of these issues, tourism companies, local governments and environmentally minded individuals are doing what they can to combat the problem.

In Hawaii, state and county lawmakers attempted to ban sunscreens that contained oxybenzone, but were unsuccessful, as they met significant resistance by the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and the Personal Care Products Council. However, while some local areas lag behind in legislation, tour companies and resorts are starting to pick up the slack, providing only biodegradable sunscreen for their guests.

One example is Aqua-Aston Hospitality, a company that manages more than 40 resorts on the Hawaiian Islands. It has taken an active role in distributing information about the effects of oxybenzone on coral reefs, and provides free samples of chemical free sunscreen considered safe for coral. It also has free sunscreen dispensers on its property that only use biodegradable lotions.

The big issue, unsurprisingly, is lack of awareness. Most people have been using standard sunscreens all their lives and pay no mind to the chemicals they include. Widespread education is going to have to be the first step to getting people to change their habits and cut back on some of the damage being done to our aquatic ecosystems.

For more information about the benefits of biodegradable sunscreen and habits you can take on to help prevent the destruction of coral reefs around the world, contact Soil Advocates at or 289-221-0164.

Join Our Growing Percolator Community
...and bubble to the top

We respect & value your privacy