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Exploring the ecological impact: how does sunscreen affect coral reefs?

Coral reefs suffer daily from human activity: global warming, ocean acidification, certain fishing techniques... 


In recent years, these problems have been compounded by the impact of sunscreen. 

Indeed, the scientific community is beginning to highlight the devastating effects of sunscreen on corals but also anemones.


“Between 6,000 and 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen end up in the oceans every year”.

Even so, every year scientists estimate that between 6,000 and 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen find their way in the oceans every year.

As far as corals are concerned, we estimate that 10% of the world's corals are exposed to this product. Admittedly, the figure seems low and not alarming. Nevertheless, when we touch “a founding species of an ecosystem, it's all the biodiversity around it that is disrupted” (Lucille Labayle, Water Quality and Health Campaigner for Surfrider Europe Fundation). 

Indeed, it is estimated that thousands of species inhabit these corals.


As summer approaches, it's important to remember the impact this has on these marine animals. 


Organic UV filters (oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene) present in most sunscreens, even at low concentrations, lead to coral bleaching”. 

A study carried out in 2008 by a team of Italian researchers, including Roberto Danovaro, showed that organic UV filters (oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene) present in the majority of sunscreens, even at low concentrations, lead to coral bleaching. But it also has a direct impact dolphins and sea urchins... If you'd like to see a summary of the impact it can have on other species, here's an infographic from the National Oceanic And Atmospheric Administration in the U.S. (NOAA).


The impact of sunscrenn chemicals on marine life
The impact of sunscreen chemicals on marine life. National Oceanic And Atmospheric's Infographic
“As far as oxybenzone is concerned, it is not absorbed by corals in the same way as it is by humans. In fact, corals transform this component into a toxin”.

You're probably wondering how these UV filters deteriorate and lead to coral bleaching. In the case of oxybenzone, for example, it is not absorbed by corals and anemones in the same way as it is by humans. In fact, corals and anemones transform oxybenzone into a toxin. This toxin does not mix well with the sun. The algae with which corals and anemones cohabit (zooxanthellae) retain this same toxin as a reflex to protect these marine animals. In reality, the opposite phenomenon occurs, leading to their bleaching and subsequent death. Indeed, a group of Stanford researchers tested anemones in salt water, oxybenzone, and simulated sunlight. The anemones died within 17 days, while those exposed to light survived.


Perhentian Island is no exception to the phenomenon of coral bleaching. We've put together a few photos to show you the devastating effect of the fusion between global warming, sunscreen and all man-made activities. 


bleaching coral
Coral bleaching, Perhentian Island, Malaysia. Perhentian Marine Research Station's image.
bleaching coral
Coral bleaching, Perhentian Island, Malaysia. Perhentian Marine Research Station's image.
bleaching coral
Coral bleaching, Perhentian Island, Malaysia. Perhentian Marine Research Station's image.
bleaching coral
Coral bleaching, Perhentian Island, Malaysia. Perhentian Marine Research Station's image.
“Since 2020 and 2021 the marketing of sunscreens containing octinoxate and oxybenzone has been banned in these territories”.

To combat this phenomenon and protect their marine biodiversity, some territories have taken measures in recent years. These include Hawaii (with the island of Oahu), the Palau archipelago, Thailand and certain areas of Mexico. Indeed, since 2020 and 2021, the marketing of sunscreens containing octinoxate and oxybenzone has been banned in these territories. 


To counter this, many brands have launched reef care sunscreen. But beware: just because a brand sticks this label on its sunscreen (reef care sunscreen), or claims to be composed largely of natural elements, doesn't mean it respects marine biodiversity. In fact, most organic sunscreens use mineral filters such as titanium dioxide and zinc dioxide, these mineral filters are known to be carcinogenic to humans when they are present in nanoparticles. Also a lot of studies have shown their harmful impact on marine life when they are in this form (see infographic at the beginning).


Our advice 

When you buy your next sun cream, we recommend that you check that it does not contain these three UV filters. The best way is to use the HEL list. This is a list created by a non-profit scientific organization which has studied the impact of sunscreens on marine life and decided to draw up a list of components deemed harmful - you can find the link here. They have also created a Protect land + sea certification to ensure that the product is safe for aquatic life. 


Protect Land + Sea Certification

Our Protect Land + Sea certified sunscreens include the sunscreen from Stream2Sea and is ideal for water sports. There is also another sunscreen from Olen named "Sunblocz" which is SPF 50 and suitable for both babies and adults. And finally the sunscreen from the brand Tropic called "great barrier", which carries the certification.

Protect land + sea sunscreen
Protect land + sea sunscreen
Protect land + sea sunscreen

A more economical solution in the long term, and better for our oceans, is to wear leggings and t-shirts with integrated spf, to wear a cap which significantly reduces the use of sunscreen and plastic at the same time. For the moment, we only have experience of the 3 UV filters mentioned above and those on the HEL list. The impact of all the components is not yet known. 


Do you know the impact of sunscreen on our oceans before reading this post?


Share with us on the subject in comments, or write about places you've visited that have marked you with the strong presence of coral bleaching.



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