Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Chemicals In Sunscreen Are Harming Coral Reefs, Says New Study

This Sept. 2015 photo provided by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources shows partially bleached coral in Kaneohe, Hawaii.
Dan Dennison AP
This Sept. 2015 photo provided by the Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources shows partially bleached coral in Kaneohe, Hawaii.

New research about sunscreen's damaging effects on coral reefs suggest that you might want to think twice before slathering it on.

Reports about the harmful environmental effects of certain chemicals in the water have been circulated for years, but according to the authors of a new study released Tuesday, the chemicals in even one drop of sunscreen are enough to damage fragile coral reef systems. Some 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions wind up in coral reefs around the world each year.

The ingredient oxybenzone leaches the coral of its nutrients and bleaches it white. It can also disrupt the development of fish and other wildlife.

Scientists conducted the new study in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Hawaii, but reefs all over the world are at risk, according to a 2011 report by the World Resource Institute.

While destructive fishing, pollution and development all pose threats to the coral reef, the study reveals that sunscreen is a serious danger to the health of coral.

"The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue," Downs said according to the Washington Post.

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

Local economies also depend on the tourism that coral reefs attract. As a result, some local businesses have started to ban the use of harmful sunscreen in their waters. In Akumal, Mexico, an area known for its reefs and sea turtles, visitors are warned against wearing sunscreen and are restricted to certain areas to prevent too much disruption of reef life.

But damaging sunscreen from beach-goers is just part of the concern. Any time people wear sunscreen, it's going to wind up in the waterways when they clean it off, just like harmful chemicals in household cleaning products that are washed down drains and into the sewage systems.

"People come inside and step into the shower. People forget it goes somewhere," co-author John Fauth told the Post.

So how can you avoid harming coral reefs without allowing the sun to damage your skin?

The U.S. National Park Service for South Florida, Hawaii, U.S. Virgin Islands, and American Samoa recommend using "reef-friendly" sunscreen (those made with titanium oxide or zinc oxide, which are natural mineral ingredients) and wearing clothing and hats to protect the skin from the sun.

Copyright 2015 NPR. To see more, visit

What questions do you have about the Statewide General Election coming up on Nov. 8? Submit your questions here, and we'll try to answer them in our reporting.