The Effects of Sunscreen on Coral Reefs

As coral bleaching continues, scientists and marine biologists   become desperate to preserve these natural wonders.

Coral reefs are known for their extreme beauty. From their vast array of shades in red, orange and pink, coral reefs have caught the eyes of millions for countless decades. Coral reefs much like The Great Barrier Reef provide food and shelter for numerous marine species. From sea sponges and anemones, to fish and crustaceans, sea turtles and even sharks, coral reefs provide housing, food and successful reproduction opportunities for all who inhabit it (SeaWorld Entertainment, S. P., 2017). Stretching 2,600 kilometers and containing over 900 islands The Great Barrier Reef is the world’s largest reef ecosystem (“Facts About The Great Barrier Reef”, n.d.). Unfortunately, as tourists from all areas of the world continue to visit, discover and explore these natural wonders, their presence causes deterioration and possible extinction of these coral reefs. These natural beauties, although resourceful and essential, can be extremely sensitive and fragile through exposure to environmental pressures. All populations within the reef ecosystem are interdependent and a part of a global food web. A thriving coral reef is beneficial to humans, aquatic plants, fish and other organisms but coral reefs are at risk due to tourism. Due to this risk the organisms that inhabit these reefs are exposed to danger through the possibility of losing shelter, thus exposing them to predation, and possible population decline. Coral reefs that are especially at risk are those in the Florida Keys and Hawaii. These reefs, although not as large as the Great Barrier Reef, are vital to the ecosystem in which they live and are at significant risk due to being heavily visited by tourist. Through their routine of sunscreen application, tourist successfully protect themselves from harmful UV rays but ironically and ignorantly pose a significant threat to the very reefs they seek to enjoy.

Sunscreen provides essential protection for the human body, however, it is endangering one of our world’s most precious and diverse ecosystems. Sunscreen is an indispensable routine all of us can relate to, however, one may question how exactly can sunscreen affect coral reefs? The answer isn’t as clear cut because sunscreen unfortunately isn’t the only factor posing a threat on coral reefs. Coral reefs experience several disturbances through climate change, ocean acidification, invasive species and over-fishing practices (“Threats to Coral Reefs”, 2013). Through these contributing factors, sunscreen pollution seems to only be enhancing disruption thus risking coral reef existence. Currently, 75% of remaining coral reefs are threatened (“Threats to Coral Reefs”, 2013).

The threat to coral reefs existence is also a threat to the revenue generated via tourism. The total global value of reef based recreation and tourism is estimated to be US$9.6 billion per year (“The Economic Impact Of Coral Reefs”, 2015). Coral reefs attract millions of tourist and scuba divers annually. All of which contribute to coral reefs significant income from reef-based activities. In addition, this revenue also produces indirect on-land tourist revenue from accommodations, travel and food (“The Economic Impact Of Coral Reefs”, 2015). Whether you are a devoted coral reef biologist or just someone who enjoys being in the ocean, the risk of sunscreen on coral reefs should be of concern. Over the past several years, coral reefs haven’t just supported the ecosystem in itself, but also sustained life above the ocean’s surface. If the issue at hand isn’t addressed, then all the benefits we gain from coral reefs will quickly diminish as reefs disappear.

Due to coral reefs being located in typically warmer climates, tourists regularly use sunscreen. This constant usage directly leads to an increase in sunscreen pollution as it washes off into the ocean. Research tells us that 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas annually. It is estimated that 90% of snorkeling/diving tourists are concentrated on 10% of the world’s reefs (National Park Service, n.d.). One may not be aware of just how much sunscreen they apply washes off into the ocean and the amounts can truly add up! The chemical composition of sunscreen is what greatly contributes greatly to coral reef decline. Chemical ingredients such as oxybenzone pose a significant threat to coral and marine biota. Oxybenzone leeches the coral of its nutrients thus bleaching it of its fluorescent color making it turn white. In addition, oxybenzone can disrupt the development and existence of fish and other wildlife. Oxybenzone, has contributed to a loss of at least 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean (Wagner, 2015). Through this continuous damage, coral reefs are struggling to survive. It is said that any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers (Wagner, 2015). Like mentioned above, there are multiple factors that contribute to the loss of our beloved coral reefs, sunscreen being the most detrimental. Through the excessive sunscreen use within tourist attractions and the harmful chemical composition found in sunscreen, coral reef destruction is progressing. It is imperative that we preserve these reefs not only to sustain the ecosystem but to also continue providing jobs, income and services for many years to come.

Sunscreen from tourists pose a significant risk to coral reefs. Due to coral reefs as a large tourist attraction, tourism means lots of sunscreen exposure to the reefs. The sunscreen used by tourists like Coppertone and Banana Boat contain the major chemical family of benzophenones (BPs) and nano zinc oxide (nZnO). The chemical BPs bleach coral and cause them to die very quickly. Bleaching occurs through the destruction of natural tissues present in coral, causing a white appearance of the coral (Downs et al. 2014). In a study showing how fast bleaching occurs, the sample coral used showed that in the presence of a small added amount of 0.1% of BPs, bleaching occurred within 18–48 hrs.; complete bleaching of the corals occurred within 96 hrs. (Danovaro et al. 2008). This process can occur very quickly and it is vital to coral reefs and the surrounding ecosystem that we make a change.

BPs also affect the composition of coral by increasing the frequency of mutations due to the damage of their DNA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA], 2014). Along with damaging the DNA, BPs damage the coral through viruses (Tibbetts, 2008). A symbiotic algae called zooxanthellae lives in the tissues of coral and viruses arise within the algae when BP’s come in contact (Tibbetts, 2008). The viruses within the algae replicate and when the algal host explodes, the virus spreads to nearby coral communities, spreading the infection and eventually killing all the coral in the area (Tibbetts, 2008). Without the coral, the entire ecosystem collapses; coral is like the heart of the body, without a heart, the body can’t live.

Additionally, sunscreen affects the inhabitants within coral reefs by damaging their biological composition, exposing them to predation and eventually death. Nano zinc oxide, nZnO, damages the exoskeletons of crustaceans like copepods and amphipods. Copepods and amphipods are small coral reef zooplankton that are important to the ecosystem by forming the base for the food web; corals eat zooplankton and some larger zooplankton will eat smaller zooplankton (“Zooplankton”, n.d.). The exoskeleton is very important to crustaceans as it provides them with support and protection from predators (Wong et al. 2010). Since the nZnO damages the exoskeleton of these crustaceans, this chemical makes them vulnerable to predators and death which disrupts the whole food web. Coral reefs depend on these crustaceans for food, if these crustaceans die because they have no protection from predators, coral reefs start to die from lack of nutrients and food.

To stop this damage, there is a need for vigorous attempts to decrease the entry of harmful chemicals. In efforts to protect the existence of coral reefs and the fragile ecosystem within them, the proposed solution is the FDA will ban the sale of non-ecofriendly sunscreens in the regions containing coral reefs.

Attractions will be required to only sell environmentally friendly sunscreen at their retailing stores. We searched for the average price of four popular sunscreens that either contained oxybenzone or BPs safe through google shopping. The same method was carried out for environmentally safe sunscreen.  Environmentally safe sunscreens such as Badgers, Alba Botanica, Honest Company and Australian Gold Botanicals all ranged from $1.50 to $4.00 for every ounce. In comparison, non-ecofriendly sunscreens were significantly cheaper. Brands including Coppertone sport broad, Banana Boat sunscreen, Blue Lizard Australian and Industrial sunscreen varied from $1.20 to $3.00 for every ounce. The price differential will affect the way consumer shop for products. Consumers will often use the price of an item to determine their overall satisfaction and experience with the distributor (Han & Ryu, 2009).

Ecofriendly Sunscreens

(No BPs or Oxybenzone)

Price ($ per oz.)

Alba Botanica Mineral Sunscreen SPF 30


Goddess Garden Organics Sport Natural Sunscreen

SPF 30


Non-Ecofriendly Sunscreens

Price ($ per oz.)

Banana Boat Sunscreen Protect and Hydrate SPF 30


Coppertone Sport Lotion Sunscreen SPF 30


As mentioned above, in general the ecofriendly sunscreens tend to be slightly more expensive than regular sunscreen, however, with a little research one can find quality for very low prices. According to Environmental Working Group’s (EWG) website as well as on Amazon, there are certainly multiple kinds of environmentally friendly sunscreens that don’t break the bank, but more importantly are also better for the environment. So yes, on average the sunscreens that do contain harmful chemicals are the cheaper option but the worth of the sunscreen you buy is more than just based on the dollar amount. If tourists continue wearing the sunscreens containing oxybenzone and BPs, then it will just further the destruction of these beautiful reefs and eventually these places will no longer be a place we will be able to visit. Therefore, it can be argued that the ecofriendly sunscreens are in fact the better bang for the buck as the use of them will help to preserve the coral reefs and allow people to continue visiting them for many more years.

The destinations themselves and the companies that supply them with their sunscreen will introduce more opposition. In Hawaii, lawmakers wanted to introduce new legislation that would prohibit the sale of 10 harmful chemicals found in sunscreen, including oxybenzone (Friedheim, 2017). Groups such as the Hawaii Food Industry Association (HFIA) and the Consumer Health Products Association (CHPA) opposed the ban (Friedheim, 2017). The HFIA is an organization that supports local food and drink vendors and suppliers through advocacy and are in support of the local communities’ interests (Hawaii Food Industry Association [HFIA], 2017). The CHPA is a national organization that represents manufacturers and marketers for over-the-counter drugs (Consumer Health Products Association [CHPA], 2017).  The HFIA claimed that oxybenzone is not harmful to coral reefs and the CHPA issued concern that sunscreens without oxybenzone will not be as effective (Friedheim, 2017). The coral reef’s local communities and national organizations will present a copious amount of opposition to peak their interests.

Both of those claims are proven false through various studies. There is no real evidence that shows organic sunscreen is less effective than regular sunscreen at protecting people from the UV rays of the sun. In fact, through some basic research, it is actually the opposite. EWG’s sunscreen catalog surveyed over 750 sunscreens and rated them on hazardousness (EWG, 2016). The scores are determined based on the UVA/UVB protection and the toxicity of the chemicals used in the sunscreen (EWG, 2016). The study revealed that sunscreens with the highest ratings were not reliable and contained the chemicals Oxybenzone and BPs (EWG, 2016). Sunscreens such as Banana boat and Neutrogena scored amongst the worst and contained harmful chemicals. Environmentally friendly sunscreens such as Pure Sun Defense and Ocean Potion Protection scored amongst the best and contained no trace of oxybenzone (EWG, 2016). EWG proves that not only are organic sunscreens effective protective agents against the sun, but are more protective than the sunscreens containing oxybenzone and BPs.

The enforcement of the ban would likely be the toughest part, we believe it would be easiest to enforce the ban of the sale of oxybenzone and BP sunscreen product at a local level (regions close to coral reefs). If the ban was proposed to be at a larger scale that would involve the FDA which would be a much tougher task to take on. Hawaii is already working on banning the harmful chemicals found in sunscreen in order to protect their coral reefs (Friedheim, 2017). They have 3 bills currently being drafted that propose varying degrees of regulation; ranging from just warning signs to the consumers to let them know the dangers, to actually trying to ban the sales of the products (Friedheim, 2017). We believe warning signs as the main source of protecting the reefs would not be effective because not everyone is worrying about how protected the coral reefs are therefore the warnings would likely go ignored most of the time. If the ban were to get put in place locally, at the Hawaii beaches for example, the use of the harmful products in that area would be limited. The problem with just banning the sale of these chemical products is that the public could still potentially bring in their own harmful sunscreens from outside the region to the beaches with no consequences, therefore warning signs could be set up by individual beaches at their own accord as an additional way to help protect their own coral reefs. This is absolutely a feasible option as Hawaii is in the midst of a small ban right now (Friedheim, 2017). With a regional sale ban, we believe this could drastically lower the number of harmful chemicals that enter the oceans and with the limited chemicals in the water, coral reefs could start to become healthier and more lively again.

Banning certain chemicals in common sunscreens should be an accomplishable task when you look at the precedents set by the United States in banning environmentally harmful chemicals. Back in 1972, the chemical pesticide DDT was banned from most uses in the United States due to its impact on the bald eagle populations (“Revisiting impairment in the case of DDT”, n.d.). Just as no one knew that sunscreens were having a poor effect on coral reefs, it was also originally thought that DDT also wasn’t directly affecting bald eagles and/or other birds but after further testing, experts found the pesticide was causing egg shell thinning and was ruining the reproductive success of the animals (“Revisiting impairment in the case of DDT”, n.d.). The best way to stop DDT from affecting birds was to ban the chemical completely because it was the only way to get the pesticide out of the food sources, soils and rivers that these birds ate, lived and drank from. Without any more reproductive struggles in the eggs, the birds were able to rebuild naturally in the environment. The DDT case study is very similar to what we are seeing now with coral reefs and sunscreen. When the government and society realized that they had to take the DDT problem seriously they acted on it and the results showed, over time, with DDT out of cycle in the environment, scientists noticed growth in the populations of the affected birds (“DDT and the Osprey”, n.d.). This is the same for the coral reefs, we know that they are growing weaker and weaker and are ultimately dying from these chemicals, therefore with a proposed ban on the sale of these products the government and society should be to achieve the same result as we did with the DDT ban.

It is quite astonishing how resourceful coral reefs have been to our existence. Whether it was on shore or beneath the ocean waves, coral reefs have served a greater purpose than what they contribute to just their own survival. Coral reefs provide job opportunities and annual income through tourism, while naturally providing an abundant amount of food resources and protection from natural disasters. Unfortunately, to the detriment of those benefits, coral reefs have been deteriorating since the 1970s under a cascade of human impacts (Climate Central, 2014). Why should we continue to destroy a resource so incredibly valuable to us if we can avoid it? To raise awareness, one must truly become aware of exactly how our coral reefs are declining. Through education and the knowledge provided in this piece, one will now have the information he or she needs to make a change. While the pressure from various communities and advocacy groups may deter the process temporarily, it is extremely important that we decrease and hopefully discontinue the use of non-ecofriendly sunscreens in coral reef locations. The plan is feasible, as evident with the EPA’s ban on DDT. In successfully passing this ban, the integrity of coral reefs and its inhabitants near extinction will hopefully be restored. Thus, allowing coral reefs to provide the world with its undeniable benefits for many years to come.


Allison Jasa-Animal Science Management

Daniel Russell-Building Construction Technology

Olivia Irons-Animal Science Pre-Veterinary

Zach Litchman-Environment Science


Climate Central. (2014, October 4). How We Can Save Coral Reefs and Why We Should. Retrieved March 31, 2017, from

Consumer Healthcare Products Association [CHPA]. (2017). Who We Are. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from

Danovaro, R., Bongiorni, L., Corinaldesi, C., Giovannelli, D., Damiani, E., Astolfi, P., . . . Pusceddu, A. (2008). Sunscreens cause coral bleaching by promoting viral infections. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(4), 441-447.

DDT and the Osprey | Wildlife Journal Junior – Wildlife Journal Junior. (n.d.). Retrieved April 03, 2017, from

Downs, C. A., Woodley, C. M., Lichtenfeld, Y., Pennington, P., Loya, Y., Kushmaro, A., . . . Bronstein, O. (2014). Toxicological effects of the sunscreen UV filter, benzophenone-2, hanon planulae and in vitro cells of the coral, stylophora pistillata [electronic resource]. Ecotoxicology, 23(2), 175-191.

EWG. 2016. Best Beach Sport Sunscreens. Retrieved April from

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Friedheim, N. (2017, January 31). Bill Banning Many Sunscreen Products Advances In House. Retrieved April 03, 2017, from

Han, H., & Ryu, K. (2009). The roles of the physical environment, price perception, and customer satisfaction in determining customer loyalty in the restaurant industry. Journal of Hospitality and Tourism Research, 33, 487-490. doi:10.1177/1096348009344212

Hawaii Food Industry Association [HFIA]. (2017). The voice of Hawai’i’s Food and Beverage Industry. Retrieved April 20, 2017, from

National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration [NOAA]. (2014, January 14). Sunscreen Chemical Threatens Coral Reefs. Retrieved April 02, 2017, from

National Park Service. (n.d.). Protect Yourself, Protect The Reef. Retrieved March 31, 2017, from

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SeaWorld Entertainment, S. P. (2017). Reef Ecosystem. Retrieved March 31, 2017, from

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Threats to Coral Reefs. (2013, May 06). Retrieved March 31, 2017, from

Tibbetts, J. (2008). Bleached, But Not by the Sun: Sunscreen Linked to Coral Damage. Environmental Health Perspectives, 116(4), A173.

Wagner, L. (2015, October 20). Chemicals In Sunscreen Are Harming Coral Reefs, Says New Study. Retrieved March 31, 2017, from

Wong, S. W. Y., Leung, K. M. Y., Djurišić, A. B., & Leung, P. T. Y. (2010). Toxicities of nano zinc oxide to five marine organisms: Influences of aggregate size and ion solubility [electronic resource]. Analytical and Bioanalytical Chemistry, 396(2), 609-618. doi://

Zooplankton. (n.d.). Retrieved April 19, 2017, from



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