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Coral Reef

Is Your Sunscreen Harming the Reef? How to Choose a Safer Sunscreen

January 30, 2019

Since a story from Parley for the Oceans recently went viral,1  it seems that oxybenzone is the villain of the season. How serious is the threat and how do you find a more eco-friendly sunscreen?

Basically, there are two types of sunscreens; chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens absorb UVA and UVB rays to prevent them from being absorbed into your skin. The ingredients that do this are often  oxybenzone or other chemicals that are currently in the spotlight for damaging coral reefs and polluting the sea.

Physical sunscreens contain zinc and titanium and they reflect UVA and UVB rays from the sun, rather than absorb them.

Chemical Sunscreens, Coral Reefs and the Water System

Oxybenzone is an active ingredient used in chemical sunscreens and many cosmetic products that claim to have some level of SPF. Unlike physical sunscreens that sit on top of your skin, the active ingredients in chemical sunscreens are absorbed into your system through the skin. The National Centre for Biotechnology Information (NCBI) cites numerous studies that have found oxybenzone in urine.2 Our bodies use a process called “conjugation” to make oxybenzone water-soluble, but we don’t know at what age we develop this ability, so sunscreen containing oxybenzone is not recommended for children.

The Therapeutic Goods Administration allows up to 10% concentration of oxybenzone in Australian products.3 Unfortunately, one drop of oxybenzone in six and a half Olympic swimming pools would be enough to cause significant damage to coral, according to Craig Downs, the executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia, USA.4

In 2015, Downs published a major study on the effects of sunscreen on coral reefs which led Hawaii to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in 2018. It was one of many studies5,6 to show how these ingredients kill the algae that are so crucial to coral health and survival. Symbiotic algae gives coral its colour, provides oxygen and helps it get rid of waste. Without this algae, coral bleaches and dies.

Are Physical Sunscreens Safe?

Physical sunscreens are often considered safer for our health because their active ingredients, zinc and titanium dioxide, do not get absorbed into our bodily system through the skin.

For a long time, physical sunscreens were less popular because they left a pasty, white appearance on the skin, but a lot has changed over the years. The size of zinc and titanium particles used in sunscreen are now much smaller. The smaller particles mean that the sunscreen can blend better onto the skin and you don’t get that filmy texture or appearance. You can even buy physical sunscreens with zinc, titanium and moisturising properties that feel beautiful on the skin. The TGA and Cancer Council both consider these smaller particles to be safe.7

As for the affect of zinc and titanium on our oceans, the evidence is not yet fully developed. Some studies have found that zinc and titanium could pose a threat to coral, but these have only been conducted in laboratories using unrealistically high concentrations of zinc and titanium.8


Chemical sunscreens are bad for the ocean and, because they get absorbed into our bodily system through the skin, they may not be safe for children. Physical sunscreens are safer for our health, but more research is needed before we can claim whether they’re safe for the ocean.

Aside from zinc and titanium, we only use organic, biodegradable ingredients in our own sunscreens to minimise any harmful effects on the environment and yourself. Remember to also wear protective clothing, sit in the shade whenever possible and come in for regular skin cancer checks.

  1. https://www.parley.tv/updates/2018/12/17/sunscreen-worse-than-climate-change?fbclid=IwAR3HOqk46Bat218PRmoFqmEo6T-Jp6tLqUX3XAX0zsY33APnLCev8BL5-us
  2. https://pubchem.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/compound/oxybenzone#section=DrugBank-Interactions
  3. https://www.tga.gov.au/book/9-permitted-ingredients
  4. https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s00244-015-0227-7?dom=pscau&src=syn
  5. https://aem.asm.org/content/aem/73/9/2976.full.pdf?dom=pscau&src=syn
  6. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2291018/?dom=pscau&src=syn
  7. https://www.choice.com.au/health-and-body/beauty-and-personal-care/skin-care-and-cosmetics/articles/sunscreen-and-nanoparticles
  8. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science/scientists-are-unraveling-new-dangers-sunscreen-coral-reefs-180969627/

Get in touch!

Do you have questions about sunscreen, sun damage and protecting your skin? Speak to one of our skincare experts.

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