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Is Your Sunscreen Harming Coral Reefs?

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A single study was the main catalyst for recent sunscreen ingredient bans, yet the science community is still debating those ingredients’ effects on coral reefs—and even on sunscreen users.

Dermatologists, beauty gurus, and parents consistently offer one seemingly uncontroversial, well-intentioned piece of advice: Wear sunscreen. A majority of chemical-based sunscreen products contain the active ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate. These are chemical ultraviolet (UV) filters that absorb harmful rays and help prevent skin cancer.

But over the last few years, a movement has emerged to ban such sunscreen ingredients based on evidence that they are toxic to coral reefs. And it’s making significant progress politically: In February, Key West, Florida, banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate in an effort to protect coral reefs from bleaching and death. Similar bans were set in the state of Hawaii and the Republic of Palau last year.

The main catalyst for these bans was a 2015 study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology titled “Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” In a nutshell, the study demonstrated how exposure to oxybenzone can cause damage, including bleaching and DNA and endocrine disruption in corals, thus posing a threat to coral reef conservation and the resiliency of these ecosystems to climate change.

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