More than 3,500 brands of sunscreen contain an ingredient that is toxic to coral, leading to the decrease of coral reefs near beaches in the US Virgin Islands, Hawaii, and the Caribbean, a new study found.
According to the study – published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology – oxybenzone (the ingredient in sunscreens) limits the ability of young coral to reproduce.
Researchers from Israel and the United States found that the waters near popular beaches (in the Caribbean, Hawaii, etc.) contained the highest levels of oxybenzone. That may explain why at popular beaches young corals are never seen in already existing reefs, Craig Downs, a scientist at the non-profit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia, said.
Young corals may be affected even by the tiniest amount of oxybenzone – 62 parts per trillion. If the concentration of oxybenzone get higher, it could be fatal to adult corals.
“Oxybenzone pollution predominantly occurs in swimming areas, but it also occurs as a result of submarine freshwater seeps that can be contaminated with sewage,” Omri Bronstein, a zoologist from Tel Aviv University, stated.
Because of the ingredient in sunscreen lotion, the coral may suffer a phenomenon that is referred to as ‘coral bleaching’ – the loss of intracellular zooxanthellae (unicellular organisms) which lead to depigmentation. Researchers also found that oxybenzone causes the coral do develop a hard outer-layer, ultimately wrapping itself in its own skeleton and dying.
According to the National Park Service, each year about 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen winds up in coral reefs. Tests conducted on seawater, show that at beaches in the Caribbean and Hawaii the sunscreen concentration is 12 times higher than the aforementioned amount.
The level of oxybenzone found in the US Virgin Islands is 23 higher than the minimum amount of toxic ingredient that may negatively impact the coral reefs.
The National Park Service stated that no sunscreen is completely safe for corals. However, what people may do is use sunscreens that contain natural ingredients such as zinc oxide and titanium oxide (two minerals which represent an ingredient in sunscreen for children).
Dr. Bronstein hopes that this study will shed some light on the damaging effects of oxybenzone, and that it will encourage people to use less harmful sunscreens.
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