How Coral Reefs Are Affected by the Oxybenzone of Sunscreens

Great Barrier Reef Aerial


It’s no secret that the beautiful colours that make up our coral reef have been fading. This incredible yet delicate ecosystem is experiencing continuous stress due to climate change and human impact. And it’s devastating. 

According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the coral reef is home to millions of species, including 4000 species of fish and 800 species of coral. 

This rich ecosystem is vital for both marine and human life. Sadly, while climate change is a factor for reducing coral reef, researchers have found the Oxybenzone chemical is also strongly at blame. The chemical - often found in our sunscreen and cosmetic products - enters the ocean when we swim or shower. It is estimated that 14.000 tons of sunscreen float in our ocean each year. 

This article explores the importance of our reef, how Oxybenzone deeply impacts it, and what we can do to reverse it. 

The Importance of Coral Reefs

It’s easy to assume that coral reefs are just a variety of plant here to nourish the various species on the ocean. The reality is a bit more complex. 

Corals are, in fact, small organisms composed of a mouth and stomach surrounded by tiny tentacles. Within its soft tissue can be found Zooxanthellae, a miniature type of algae that provides the coral’s colours. When the coral is under stress, it releases its Zooxanthellae, slowly bleaching itself in the process. 

As a bigger picture, coral reefs offer shelter and nourishment to a great variety of fish, crustaceans, molluscs, anemones, sea turtles, and other marine faunal species. When the reef bleaches, it strips away its safe, nursing habitat to those species, leaving them vulnerable and prone to extinction. 

But the reef doesn’t just benefit marine life. In fact, it is also of great importance for humans. The reef is a natural shoreline shield for our habitat, as it helps dissipate waves’ high impact from storms, hurricanes and tidal surges. Along with protecting us from a loss of infrastructure, the reef is a massive part of Australia’s economy through tourism. It creates over 60,000 jobs and brings millions to our economy. 

So it is fair to say that coral reefs are a valuable ecosystem that should be nurtured rather than blindly destroyed. 

Coral Reef and oxybenzone

Oxybenzone and Its Impact on the Reef

We’ve talked about the effects of Oxybenzone on our skin, but its impact on our reef is far more damaging. Oxybenzone is a chemical that effectively absorbs UVA. It is widely found in sunscreens due to its ability to protect against sun damage. While it is damaging to our health, the chemical has been linked to coral bleaching, reef deformity, and marine’s death. 

In 2015, a team of researchers led by NOAA observed the effect of Oxybenzone on a Stylophora coral. They noted that the chemical damaged its DNA and deformed its larvae. They also found that a stronger concentration of Oxybenzone led to increased beaching in the coral. 

By forcing the coral to bleach and disrupting larvae to grow to maturity, Oxybenzone toxically pushes the reef to die. And unfortunately, this creates a snowball effect on the millions of species that inhabit it. Fish, crustaceous, mollusc, and other marine life start to decline, and the more Oxybenzone gets into the ocean, the quicker this scenario takes place. 

The Human Footprint and How We Can Reverse It

Should you protect your skin from UV, or should you protect the reef? A decade ago, we would have had no choice but to pick one or the other. This was mainly because there were few sunscreen options that didn’t contain Oxybenzone. Today, things are different. 

While wearing protective clothing, hat and sunnies, along with staying in the shade, are still widely recommended, applying a daily SPF30 on your skin is needed. But that doesn’t mean it needs to harm the reef. 

Natural sunscreen containing Zinc Oxide are mineral formulas that have shown NOT to be harmful to the ocean and the life within it. While Oxybenzone dissipates into the sea as soon as our skin comes in contact with water, natural sunscreens stay on the skin, making it a safe option for coral reefs. 

As individuals, we can be mindful of the sunscreen we choose, not only for ourselves but also for the ocean. Along with that, it is also important to take part in any way we can, in a bigger movement. Certain destinations - including Hawaii and Palau - have recently introduced a ban on harmful sunscreen containing Oxybenzone. The approval of this law would lead to an effective protection and restoration of the reef’s ecosystem. 


It only seems fair to request the same outcome for the Great Barrier Reef as Australians. 

While Queensland is productive in warning the population about sunscreen reef damage, there is currently no explicit ban in place. Right now, it is up to us - citizens and ocean lovers - to raise awareness and be mindful of what we carry in the water. 

Our ocean and the delicate reef within it is, no doubt, of vital importance. So let’s all choose to do our part, in order to save it.

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