Just when we thought things couldn’t get worse for the coral reefs around the world, they do. Not only are the mass amounts of garbage and rising sea temperatures testing the endurance of the reef landscape, but now the very skin of swimmers is affecting coral. The problem? Sunscreen. According to Time, a recent study found that oxybenzone, a key ingredient in many sunscreens including popular brands like Neutrogena, causes disruption in the cells of young coral, and exacerbates coral bleaching.
It’s a disappointment that some swimmers’ efforts to simply go snorkeling to see the wonders of the reefs has turned into a pollution problem. After all, the source also states that somewhere between 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen reaches reefs yearly, according to the U.S. National Park Service, which also states that “toxicity occurs at a concentration of 62 parts per trillion.” I think us humans would be pretty pissed if birds starting flying around with some toxic coating dripping down on us. The small things are starting to count in the race to save the reef, and switching to a better sunscreen will help the cause.
Studies on oxybenzone and its effect on humans haven’t lead to a clear conclusion for consumers, but it is important to observe what the research has shown. According to a study by Free Radical Biology and Medicine, “under certain conditions, sunscreens with oxybenzone and other ultraviolet filters could lead to free-radical damage to the skin, a process that in theory could lead to skin cancer.” Other studies have shown that oxybenzone at the least has a higher rate of skin allergy than other ingredients used in sunscreen like titanium or zinc oxide, which is reason enough to be suspicious.
Why do companies still use oxybenzone then? Sweden has banned use of this ingredient, and even the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention suggests that parents keep the chemical away from children, as they have not developed the enzymes to break the substance down. The truth is, it’s a cheap chemical, and it does do its job of protecting against UVB and UVA rays. But other alternatives are available that have shown to be just as effective. If not for the ocean’s health, maybe for our own. Feeling like you’re covered in chemicals that have might corrupt your cells just isn’t a great time. And we could be the guinea pig generation — who knows down the line what more research will uncover about the dangers of what we lather on daily? It’s not a matter of scientists telling us to stop protecting our own skin to save the reefs, it is a matter of scientists telling us that these chemical are not good for animal life, and therefore probably not ideal for our own.
Reefs are in big trouble. The Great Barrier Reef has seen its decline in diversity and a raise in a parasitic Crown-of-Thorns starfish, which consume the already pale and drooping coral that still fight on to live in the Australian wonder. Problems like this are hard to solve, unless the Australian government seizes on the proposition to pay scuba divers to kill, one by one, the invasive starfish. But the problem we can fix is being aware of our own actions. Reefs help protect the environment by serving as “carbon sinks,” absorbing the carbon dioxide in the air just a like a great North American forest. This precious source of color, beauty, wonder and life is something we can’t let go of. From Hawaii to Australia, we can’t let climate change affect this beauty. Though we worry about the polar bears and their melting habitats, it’s as important to remember our fish friends and how they are suffering as acidic levels rise in the oceans. Making sure our trash goes into the trash can and not down the sewers (and possibly into the ocean), and most easily, I think, is choosing a sunscreen that won’t cause more damage to the fragile environment, especially those who are snorkeling or diving straight into the action.
What we can do is easy: pick a new sunscreen that meets our needs and doesn’t contain oxybenzone. Not a regular snorkeler or even beach-goer? Choosing a sunscreen without the harmful ingredient will help companies know what consumers are looking for: a safe and reliable product. While we’re wearing our nifty, hippie, organic sunscreens we can go even more green and pick up trash we see along our daily routes. We live in the city. Whatever waste we see will probably end up downstream and we don’t want to hurt out marine friends any more, do we? All the small endeavors will lead to a better future for our reefs, which can give us peace of mind for future generations enjoying the beauty and wonderful landscape teeming with life that are our global reefs.