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What Makes Sunscreen Unsafe For The Ocean?

Sunscreen, an essential tool in the fight against skin cancer, embodies a troubling paradox. While it shields your skin from harmful ultraviolet (UV) rays, certain components are causing significant harm to the oceans. Millions of people applying sunscreen before diving into the sea inadvertently contribute to the degradation of fragile marine ecosystems, particularly coral reefs. This article will delve into the science behind the detrimental effects of sunscreen on the ocean, showcase real-world examples of ocean damage, discuss the role of laws, regulations, and companies, explore safer alternatives and practices, and finally, envision the possibilities for a safer, sun-protected future.

The Composition Of Sunscreen


Sunscreen consists of a blend of active and inactive ingredients that collectively provide a shield against harmful UV rays. The active ingredients are UV filters that can be broadly classified into two types: organic or “chemical” filters such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene, and inorganic or “mineral” filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. The chemical filters are particularly concerning because they can harm aquatic life.

These chemicals are engineered to absorb UV rays and dissipate them as heat, protecting the skin from sunburn and other forms of UV damage. However, they do not break down readily, which means they can persist in the environment long after they wash off our bodies. Alarmingly, a growing body of research points to these chemicals having a range of adverse effects on marine ecosystems.

The Science Behind Sunscreen’s Ocean Impact


Every time we swim in the ocean, some sunscreen washes off and pollutes the water. It also enters our water systems through bathroom drains. Approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the world’s oceans yearly. The long-lasting sunscreen chemicals accumulate over time and can reach toxic levels in water bodies, posing significant risks to marine life, particularly in popular beach destinations where sunscreen use is high.

Chemicals in sunscreen, like oxybenzone and octinoxate, can bleach and kill coral reefs, which are vital to marine biodiversity. Corals exposed to these chemicals are more susceptible to bleaching, a stress response that can lead to death, especially when combined with rising sea temperatures due to climate change. Additionally, these chemicals can deform and damage marine life, disrupting reproduction and growth in fish and decreasing fertility in shellfish. The sunscreen we use to protect ourselves might endanger our oceans’ health.

Case Studies Of Ocean Damage


Real-world examples vividly illustrate the damage sunscreen can inflict on marine ecosystems. For instance, studies have linked the high presence of oxybenzone to coral bleaching in the Hawaiian Islands and the Caribbean Sea, particularly in popular snorkeling sites. In these areas, sunscreen chemicals have reached levels far exceeding the concentrations known to cause harm to corals.

The Great Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site and the largest coral reef system globally, has not been immune to this issue either. The Reef has been battling multiple threats, including climate change, pollution, and overfishing. Recently, sunscreen pollution has emerged as another stressor. Researchers have detected oxybenzone in the waters surrounding the Reef, adding to the cocktail of threats it faces and complicating restoration efforts. It’s becoming clear that sunscreen pollution is not an isolated problem but a global one.

Current Laws And Regulations


Recognizing the need for action, several jurisdictions have passed laws limiting sunscreen’s environmental impact. Hawaii was a pioneer in this regard, becoming the first U.S. state to ban the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in 2018. The law, aimed at protecting Hawaii’s fragile marine ecosystems, set a precedent for other regions with vulnerable marine environments.

Globally, other countries have taken note. Palau, an archipelago in the western Pacific Ocean, has gone even further, banning “reef-toxic” sunscreens entirely. Key West in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands have also banned sunscreens containing harmful chemicals. While these regulations are a step in the right direction, enforcement remains challenging. Furthermore, given the global scale of the problem, the need for international standards and regulations is becoming increasingly apparent.

The Role Of Sunscreen Companies


Sunscreen manufacturers play a crucial role in mitigating the impact of their products on marine life. Some companies are already leading the way, innovating and reformulating their products to be ‘reef-friendly’. These sunscreens typically use mineral filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, considered safer for coral reefs.

However, the term ‘reef-friendly’ isn’t regulated, meaning brands can use it loosely. To address this, some certification bodies are emerging to provide clear standards and transparency for consumers. Yet, much of the responsibility lies with the sunscreen manufacturers themselves. They have a vital role in not only making their products safe but also in educating consumers about the environmental impact of sunscreen.

The Alternatives: Safer Sunscreens And Sun Practices


Fortunately, we don’t need to choose between protecting our skin and saving our oceans. Mineral sunscreens, which use zinc oxide or titanium dioxide to physically block UV rays, are considered safer alternatives. Unlike chemical sunscreens, these do not contain harmful substances that are toxic to marine life. However, choosing non-nano mineral sunscreens is essential because nano-sized particles can still harm small marine creatures.

Apart from choosing safer sunscreens, we can also adopt smarter sun practices. This includes seeking shade during peak sunlight, wearing sun-protective clothing, and using umbrellas or sun hats. By combining these strategies with safer sunscreens, we can enjoy the sun responsibly while protecting our oceans.

Role Of The Public: Awareness And Action

Public awareness and action are key to addressing this issue. Most consumers are unaware of the impact their choice of sunscreen has on marine life, which is why education is critical. Consumers can make environmentally friendly choices and advocate for change when informed.

Changing consumer behavior is one part of the solution, but a broader societal shift is required for substantial change. This includes advocating for stricter regulations on harmful sunscreen ingredients, supporting companies prioritizing environmentally safe products, and promoting research into innovative solutions. Public demand has the power to drive industry change, and every individual action counts towards protecting our oceans.

Future Predictions and Possibilities

If we continue on the current path, the prognosis for our oceans is grim. However, the future can be quite different if we make more responsible choices. If the trend towards banning harmful sunscreen ingredients continues and safer alternatives become the norm, we can significantly reduce the stress on our marine ecosystems.

In addition, if more companies take a sustainable approach to their products and more people become aware of the issue, our collective actions can lead to healthier oceans. There is also a need for continued research and innovation in this field to develop even better solutions. The key lies in our hands; our decisions can shape the future of our oceans.

The Bottom Line

From the sunscreen we slather on our skin to the world’s vast oceans, the connection is more significant than many of us realize. While sunscreen protects us from harmful UV radiation, it can wreak havoc on marine ecosystems. However, through informed choices and actions, we can make a difference. We can enjoy the sun without hurting our oceans by opting for safer sunscreens, adopting smarter sun practices, and supporting the right causes and companies. The hope for a future where both humans and oceans thrive lies within our grasp, and it begins with understanding the impact of our choices and acting accordingly.


  1. National Ocean Service – Is sunscreen harmful to coral reefs?
  2. NOAA Coral Reef Conservation Program – Sunscreen Chemical Threatens Coral Reefs
  3. The Guardian – Hawaii bans sunscreen harmful to coral reefs
  4. Consumer Reports – What ‘Reef-Safe’ Means for Sunscreens

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