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So, Sunscreen is Killing the Coral Reefs?

You finally made it to the ocean; the sun is shining down and there’s not a cloud in sight. Enjoying whatever cocktail you please on the beach. You know what they say, “good times and tan lines.” The last thing you’ll want to think about is how potentially you are contributing to the death of coral reefs.

According to National Geographic, 14,000 tons of sunscreen is washed into our oceans every year. In the last 50 years, 80% of the coral reef population has been lost due to water population, coastal developments and global warming. Our reefs are in danger. The Great Barrier Reef, Hawaii bay, U.S. Virgin Islands and Israel are some of the most vulnerable in the population.

This is caused by harmful chemicals commonly found in sunscreens. There’s a long list of chemicals that can hurt reefs, but the main two are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. 

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So, how does sunscreen hurt our reefs? Before that, there are two ways that sunscreen can get into the ocean. One, when you shower it can enter the ocean through the waterways. Two, sunscreen can enter our oceans directly by swimming or even getting on the sand, which is washed into the ocean by the tides. The harmful chemicals in the water are then absorbed by the coral and can lead to devastating consequences. The chemicals can cause bleaching, damage the DNA (which affects reproduction) and can deform young coral.

Some places have already taken action to help prevent the reefs from dying. In Hawaii, a bill was passed making it the first state to place a ban on purchasing sunscreens containing harmful chemicals over the counter. The ban was effective January 1, 2021. Other places are close to the following suit.

Some common sunscreen brands that contain harmful chemicals are:

  • Sun Bum 

  • Neutrogena 

  • Hawaiian tropic

  • Aveeno

  • Coppertone

  • Glossier

You might be wondering what to do when sunscreen is heavily suggested by medical professionals to prevent sunburns, early aging and even skin cancer. The National Ocean Service has some tips. Use reef-safe sunscreen, seek shade, wear sunglasses, wear a sun shirt or leggings and you can even implement wearing a hat to prevent soaking in those UV rays.

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Here are a few sunscreens that are free of those harmful chemicals:


Our coral reefs are beautiful and are proof of how amazing Earth is and how much it has to offer. We need to do better for Mother Earth. This issue is serious, but by implementing small things, like reef-safe sunscreen, you can make a difference.

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More Resources:

Hanna Brown is a junior at the University of Kansas (Rock Chalk!). She is working towards a bachelor's in journalism with a minor in history. Hanna loves writing about entertainment, pop culture and self-care.
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