The sunscreen in your beach tote may be damaging coral reefs. While changes in ocean temperatures and acidification caused by climate change are deadly threats to coral, common ingredients in sunscreens like oxybenzone, octinoxate, and butylparaben can harm reefs and contribute to coral bleaching.
From Hawaii’s Hanauma Bay Nature Preserve to the Great Barrier Reef, coral reefs around the world are shrinking and dying at alarming rates. More than 90 percent of the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached to some degree, and half of its coral has died since 2016. Scientists are estimating that more than 90 percent of reefs worldwide will be threatened by 2030, and the United Nations
has predicted that all World Heritage coral reefs are likely to be dead by 2100 if drastic measures are not taken.
Fourteen-thousand tons of sunscreen are washed into the ocean each year where it poisons the coral and works its way up the food chain into the fish and seafood we eat. Studies by the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory
have found oxybenzone in oysters, crayfish, lobster, blue crab, and even fish caught and served in Hawaii according to Craig Downs, the executive director of HEL.
On May 1, Hawaii banned
the sale of sunscreens that contain these chemicals. The ban doesn’t go into effect until January of 2021, but places like Hanauma Bay State Park are already encouraging visitors to use reef-safe sunscreen.
While it’s most important when you are swimming and lounging at the beach, the sunscreen you slather on at the pool or before a hike can make its way into the ocean too. The chemicals in sunscreen wash off in the shower or pool and make their way through the water treatment system and into local waterways and the ocean.
“Sewage is the biggest source of this personal care pollution everywhere,” said Downs. “I don’t just mean Hawaii, but California, Lake Tahoe, Lake Erie, Ohio – all over the world.”