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How Sunscreen Is Harming Coral Reefs

Using Sunscreen

Story at-a-glance -

  • Oxybenzone, a common endocrine-disrupting sunscreen chemical, exacerbates coral bleaching, damages coral DNA, and causes coral deformities
  • Just 62 parts per trillion, or the equivalent of one drop of water in 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools, of oxybenzone may damage coral
  • It’s estimated that between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reef areas worldwide every year

By Dr. Mercola

Oxybenzone is one of the most common ingredients added to sunscreens. Its primary function is to absorb ultraviolet light, and it's found in 3,500 brands of sunscreen worldwide.1

The average person spending a day at the beach might slather on two to four ounces of sunscreen if they reapply it every two hours after swimming and sweating, which is a significant amount of this personal care product being absorbed by your skin and entering your body.

However, some of the sunscreen also ends up in the water when you take a dip. And when you multiply this by virtually every swimmer in the water, virtually every day of the year, that sunscreen exposure to the marine environment adds up.

Unfortunately, oxybenzone, which has proven toxic to human health previously, is also turning out to be toxic to the oceans, including to the baby corals living in it.

Oxybenzone May Be Killing off Coral Reefs

It's estimated that between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter coral reef areas worldwide every year. Much of it contains oxybenzone, which new research found to be damaging at minute levels – just 62 parts per trillion, or the equivalent of one drop of water in 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools.2

Aside from entering the water on swimmers, oxybenzone gets washed down the drain when you shower, entering sewage systems. Once in the environment, a study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology revealed four key ways it's damaging coral reefs:3,4

  1. Exacerbates coral bleaching, in which coral reject symbiotic algae, turn white, and are at increased risk of dying
  2. Damages coral DNA, making them unable to reproduce and triggering widespread declines in coral populations
  3. Acts as an endocrine disrupter, causing baby coral to encase themselves in their own skeletons and die
  4. Causes gross deformities in coral, such as coral mouths that expand five times larger than normal

Although the study took place in the US Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and Israel, it's thought that reefs worldwide are at risk. According to study co-author Craig Downs:5

"The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue…

We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean… Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers."

Coral Reefs Are Priceless…

Coral reefs represent a priceless part of marine ecosystems, providing habitat for fish and other sea creatures, and contributing to local economies by drawing in tourists. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration estimated that coral reefs contribute $30 billion to the world economy each year.6

Coral reefs also serve as carbon sinks, helping to absorb carbon dioxide from the environment, and represent an irreplaceable source of protection for coastal cities. As reported by the International Coral Reef Initiative:7

"Coral reefs are often called the rainforests of the sea, both due to the vast amount of species they harbor, and to the high productivity they yield.

Aside from the hundreds of species of coral, reefs support extraordinary biodiversity and are home to a multitude of different types of fish, invertebrates, and sea mammals.

Covering less than one percent of the ocean floor, reefs support an estimated twenty-five percent of all marine life, with over 4,000 species of fish alone.

Reefs provide spawning, nursery, refuge, and feeding areas for a large variety of organisms, including sponges, cnidarians, worms, crustaceans (including shrimp, spiny lobsters, and crabs), molluscs (including cephalopods), echinoderms (including starfish, sea urchins, and sea cucumbers), sea squirts, sea turtles, and sea snakes.

Reef structures play an important role as natural breakwaters, which minimize wave impacts from storms such as cyclones, hurricanes, or typhoons.

Also, their beauty makes coral reefs a powerful attraction for tourism, and well managed tourism provides a sustainable means of earning foreign currency and employment for people around the world, even in remote areas of developing countries."

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Risks of Oxybenzone to Human Health

There's good reason to avoid sunscreens containing oxybenzone even aside from their risks to the environment. Oxybenzone, which has been detected in nearly every American, is believed to cause hormone disruptions and cell damage that may provoke cancer.

This endocrine-disrupting chemical acts like estrogen in the body, alters sperm production in animals, and is also associated with endometriosis in women. It has relatively high rates of skin allergy and is a highly skin-penetrating chemical.8

According to the Environmental Working Group (EWG):9

"… [T]he chemical oxybenzone penetrates the skin, gets into the bloodstream, and acts like estrogen in the body. It can trigger allergic reactions. Data are preliminary, but studies have found a link between higher concentrations of oxybenzone and health harms.

One study has linked oxybenzone to endometriosis in older women; another found that women with higher levels of oxybenzone during pregnancy had lower birth weight daughters."

There's really no reason to risk exposure to this chemical – for yourself or the environment – as safer alternatives exist.

In lieu of the skin-penetrating hormone-disrupting chemicals like oxybenzone, safer sunscreens tend to use non-nanoparticle sized zinc- and titanium-based mineral ingredients, which block the sun's rays without penetrating your skin.

However, when you'll be in the sun for longer periods, you can simply cover up with clothing, a hat, or shade (either natural or that you create using an umbrella, etc.).

The US National Park Service for South Florida, Hawaii, US Virgin Islands, and American Samoa recommends using only "reef friendly" sun protection when visiting reefs, including:10

  • Sunscreen with titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, which have not been found harmful to corals
  • Alternatively, covering up with hats, sunglasses, and long-sleeved clothing (including a long-sleeved rash guard while in the water)

Why Slathering on Chemical Sunscreens Every Time You're in the Sun May Backfire

Do you dutifully apply sunscreen on all of your exposed skin every time you go out in the sun? There are a few reasons why this widely circulated advice is counter to reason.

One, as mentioned, is because the sunscreen itself is often toxic. Two-thirds of the sunscreens analyzed by EWG did not work well or contained potentially hazardous ingredients, including not only oxybenzone but also retinyl palmitate (vitamin A palmitate) and fragrance chemicals.11

Further, if you apply sunscreen every time you're out in the sun, you'll block your body's ability to produce vitamin D. Optimizing your vitamin D levels may reduce your risk of as many as 16 different types of cancer, including pancreatic, lung, ovarian, breast, prostate, and skin cancers.

Some studies show melanoma mortality actually decreases after UV exposure. Additionally, melanoma lesions do not tend to appear primarily on sun-exposed skin, which is why sunscreens have proven ineffective in preventing it.

Exposure to sunlight, particularly UVB, can be protective against melanoma (the deadliest form of skin cancer) — or rather, the vitamin D your body produces in response to UVB radiation is protective. The following passage comes from The Lancet:12

"Paradoxically, outdoor workers have a decreased risk of melanoma compared with indoor workers, suggesting that chronic sunlight exposure can have a protective effect."

By avoiding the sun, or blocking your vitamin D production by over-applying sunscreen when you are in the sun, your risk for vitamin-D deficiency skyrockets. Not to mention, sunshine's gifts extend well beyond vitamin D production. Five of the many noteworthy properties of spending some quality time in the sun include:13

  1. Pain-killing (analgesic) properties
  2. Increased subcutaneous fat metabolism
  3. Regulation of human lifespan (solar cycles appear to be able to directly affect the human genome, thereby influencing lifespan)
  4. Daytime sun exposure improves evening alertness
  5. Conversion to metabolic energy (i.e. we may "ingest" energy directly from the sun, like plants do)

A safe sunscreen – one that uses a natural mineral-based block like titanium dioxide or zinc oxide – can be applied after you've optimized your daily vitamin D production.

Four Tips to Safely Enjoy the Sun Without Harming Your Health or the Environment

To continuously enjoy the positive effects of sun exposure without getting burned, I recommend following these simple safety tips:

  1. Protect your face and eyes by wearing a wide-brimmed hat or a cap. The skin around these areas is much thinner than other areas of your body and is more at risk for cosmetic photo damage and premature wrinkling. If it's too hot to protect your skin by covering with light clothing, and you'll be outside for extended periods, be sure to use a natural broad-spectrum sunscreen on your skin – these products often contain zinc.
  2. Limit your initial sun exposure and slowly work your way up. If you are a fairly light-skinned individual who tends to burn easily, limit your initial exposure to just a few minutes, especially if it is in the middle of summer. The more tanned your skin gets, the longer you can stay in the sun without burning.
  3. Build an internal sunscreen with beneficial antioxidants. Astaxanthin, a potent antioxidant, can be used both internally and topically to protect your skin from the sun. Other helpful antioxidants include proanthocyanidins, resveratrol, and lycopene.
  4. Eating healthy is also important. Fresh, raw, and unprocessed foods deliver the nutrients your body needs to maintain a healthy balance of omega-6 and omega-3 oils in your skin, which is your first line of defense against sunburn. Fresh, raw vegetables also provide your body with an abundance of powerful antioxidants that will help you fight the free radicals caused by sun damage that can lead to burns and cancer.

  5. Moisturize your skin naturally. Before sunbathing, apply organic coconut oil or aloe vera on the exposed areas of your skin (as noted above).

Swimming, snorkeling, and otherwise spending time in the ocean is a wonderful pastime (and great exercise), but do take care to respect both your health and that of the coral reefs by avoiding the use of chemical sunscreens that contain oxybenzone. You can easily protect your skin from overexposure to the sun using the safer methods discussed above.