We all know the coral reefs are in trouble. In fact, a severe worldwide bleaching event is currently underway - the third one in recorded history - and it's set to damage 38 percent of the planet’s reefs, with 12,000 square kilometres expected to die out this year.
Rising ocean temperatures and a monster El Nino event have been identified as the biggest culprits, but a new report has found that a common sunscreen ingredient is actually toxic to coral, and is killing off juvenile coral and severely damaging adult coral in high concentrations around the world, particularly in Hawaii and the Caribbean.
The ingredient in question? A UV-filtering chemical compound called oxybenzone - also known as BP-3 or Benzophenone-3 - which is found in 3,500 brands of sunscreen around the world, including L’Oreal Paris, Banana Boat, and Neutrogena.
Not only can the chemical disrupt growth, cause severe deformities, and alter the coral’s DNA to make it more susceptible to bleaching, it’s also been found to disrupt hormone production in coral organisms, causing the larval 'planula' to become trapped in its own skeleton and die. And the worst part is, scientists have known about this for years, but we just haven’t been listening.
The researchers, led by Craig Downs from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in the US, found that even the tiniest amount can be deadly, reporting that they still found damaging effects in oxybenzone concentrations as low as 62 parts per trillion - equivalent to a drop of water in 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools. This could explain why it’s been so hard to establish new coral populations in resort areas.
"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," Downs told the AFP. "The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue."
Downs and his colleagues report in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology that between 6,000 and 14,000 tonnes circulate through our coral reefs every year, with concentrations around Hawaii and the Caribbean currently 12 times higher than anywhere else.
It’s not just beachgoers who should be feeling really guilty right now. As Maddie Stone points out at Gizmodo, the sunscreen that washes off when we’re in the ocean isn’t the only culprit - if you wear sunscreen on your face every day and wash it off at night, it’s also making its way into the ocean, as is the oxybenzone in your mascara, lipstick, and shampoo.
╯°□°）╯︵ ┻━┻ right? We’re just trying to do the right thing and protect ourselves from skin cancer, and now we’re told we’re responsible for tiny baby corals losing their minds and holing themselves up in a horrible death prison made from their own skeletons. But all is not lost, as Stone explains:
"Thankfully, there’s a pretty straightforward solution here: stop wearing sunscreen that contains this nasty shit. Check the ingredients list on your sunscreen bottle. If you wear Coppertone, L’Oreal Paris, Hawaiian Tropic, Banana Boat, or another major brand name, you’ll probably find oxybenzone. Chuck that bottle in the garbage and replace it with one of these ecologically responsible brands."
The Guardian reports that according to the American Academy of Dermatology, there is no data showing oxybenzone is harmful to humans, and unfortunately, it's one of the only ingredients out there that can effectively protect our skin from both UVA and UVB rays.