Normal coral (left) exposed to ultraviolet filters found in sunscreen “bleaches” white (right) when the algae living inside it die.
Go to the beach. Swim. Kill some ecosystems and go home. All in a full day trip to any of the world’s sandy getaways. Until recently, this was a trip to get away from the world’s problems, but now, with the reporting on what our sunscreen is doing to marine life, the ocean jaunting is becoming increasing dangerous to our planet’s wonders of the sea. National Geographic (in 2008) has done extensive research on the topic in recent years and their reporting has been staggering, almost shocking.
According to their studies, chemical sunscreens remain in the water after skin hits the surface and the coral life in most of our seas is seeing this detrimental decline in quality and life.
The chemicals can bleach corals and activate algae viruses. The viruses then replicate and explode out of the algae, spreading further out in the coral community. This eventually kills off the algae, which provide the coral with food and make them colorful. Without the algae, the coral then dies.
So much for a relaxing time at the beach. The result of poor eco-friendly decision-making can already be seen in Egypt’s Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, where what was once beautiful coral with myriad colors has been turned into dark, grayish coral that most likely has only a few years of life remaining. While sunscreen use is not the only culprit there, it has certainly contributed to the destruction.
The most common ingredients in sunscreens are parabens, cinnamate, benzophenone and a camphor derivative. All these are harmful to marine ecosystems.
Read deeper on sunscreen tips and research:
John Thomas, an environmental researcher at the University of California, says that as a society we must come to terms with what “our own actions can do to the places we like to go. If we like the ocean, people should do their best to protect it.”
But people are not. Thomas argues that as information gets spread to more people and on a wider acceptance level, “the consumer can change how products are made in order to force companies to be more environmentally friendly.”
On the National Geographic website, it recommends beach visitors to purchase and use sunscreens with physical filters such as dioxide or zinc oxide, which it says are eco-friendly sunscreens.Some 5,000 metric tons of sunscreen is washed off swimmers and into oceans annually, reported Environmental Graffiti. “Even low doses of the ingredients can start the process. The study found that water around coral exposed to sunscreen had more than 15 times as many viruses as water around non-exposed coral,” it added.
The next time the beach is in the cards, think twice about the type of sunscreen being put on the skin and search for those better options. They are out there.