sunscreen coral reefs sunscreen coral reefs According to marine scientists, a common ingredient in most sunscreens is having a toxic impact on the world's coral reefs. (Photo: Patryk Kosmider / Shutterstock)

This common product is harming coral reefs

Scientists make a startling discovery about one of the world's great natural wonders.

When it comes to choosing a sunscreen, we've likely all seen bottles sporting labels such as "skin-friendly," "eco-friendly" and "non-toxic." But should our favorite weapon in the fight against skin cancer also come labeled as "reef-friendly"? That's the recommendation and alarm being sounded by scientists after discovering that even small amounts of certain sunscreens can permanently damage fragile coral reefs.

The startling revelation is the work of an international team of marine scientists from various institutions including the U.S. National Aquarium, Tel Aviv University in Israel, the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia, the the U.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration, and Ben Gurion University in Israel.

After studying samples from coral reefs off the coasts of Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Eilat, Israel, the researchers were startled to discover a toxic link between reef damage and a common UV-filtering compound found in sunscreens. Called oxybenzone, the chemical was found in the highest concentrations in coral reefs that were the most popular with tourists.

According to Dr. Omri Bronstein of Tel Aviv University, oxybenzone is found in more than 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide. "It pollutes coral reefs via swimmers who wear sunscreen or wastewater discharges from municipal sewage outfalls and coastal septic systems," he said.

The researchers discovered that it takes but a single drop of sunscreen in a volume of water larger than 6 1/2 Olympic-sized swimming pools to create a toxic environment. Young coral is particularly susceptible, with oxybenzone linked to DNA damage, loss of nutrition from surface-coating algae (also known as "coral bleaching") and deformation.

The news comes as reefs around the world are already under threat from climate change, over-fishing and other forms of pollution. These diverse ecosystems not only protect coastlines from damaging waves and tropical storms, but also provide habitat for millions of species. To lose them would be to lose not only a natural jewel of our planet, but also an integral piece of our circle of life.

"We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean," lead scientist Craig Downs of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia told PhysOrg. "Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers. Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this will achieve little if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment."

Thankfully, there are a number of sunscreens available that have already dropped oxybenzone in favor of non-toxic, natural alternatives. You can check out our full list of sun protection products that do not contain oxybenzone.

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