Next time your mother reminds you to put on enough sunscreen before you head out for a day at the beach, think twice about the type you are applying. The protective lotion may be blocking the UV rays, but could be harmful to ocean life, especially coral reefs. Recent studies show that chemicals commonly found in sunblock and other cosmetics can have a huge negative impact on our coral reefs and other ocean wildlife.
Between 4,000 and 6,000 tons of sunscreen wash off swimmers into the oceans every year, affecting 10% of our rapidly dwindling coral reefs according to a study by the U.S. National Parks service. When chemicals in sunscreen come in contact with the algae in the water surrounding the reefs, it causes the algae to explode and release a deadly virus to the coral. In a healthy reef, zooxanthellae algae provides nutrients for the coral in a symbiotic relationship, but when chemicals found in sunscreen such as benzophenone and cinnamate are introduced into the water, a healthy relationship cannot be maintained. Without the nutrients the coral needs to survive, it dries up and loses its color, often referred to as "bleaching". It's hard to believe that something as mundane as applying sunscreen at the beach may be affecting whole ecosystems, but research shows that the effects are not necessarily dose dependent: small amounts of exposure can cause negative effects equal to those of high exposure to these chemicals. Seawater with exposure to sunblock can contain up to 15 times as many viruses as water with no exposure. It only takes a small drop of sunscreen to create a domino effect in the spreading of viruses throughout the reefs.
The concentration of the toxins found in the oceans as a result of sunscreen equates to that of a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool. Scaling this to 75% of our planet, leaves us with a lot of polluted water. Beach-goers are not the only ones to blame; many of the deadly chemicals found in sunblock are also found in soaps, lotions, makeup and other cosmetics, which end-up in wastewater facilities that do not always filter out these chemicals. The result is a rise in the death rate of our precious coral reefs as well as unusual developmental patterns in fish and other marine organisms.
While sunscreen attributed ocean pollution is one of myriad ocean pollutants (oil! Garbage! Micro-plastic!), it is also one that you can eradicate from the waters through your own choice in sun protection. So, next time Mom tells you to lather up, make sure you're using sunblock labeled with eco friendly chemicals and physical filters. Try to look for sunscreen that reflects the UV rays instead of absorbing them, which will lessen the negative impact it will have on the ocean.