top of page

Why your sunscreen is bad for coral reefs

Feature Story IslandLife XpBonaire

- But protecting your skin and the reefs is possible-

On Bonaire protecting our marine life is a priority. Since we are also a tourist destination the latest findings on the impact of sun protection products on coral reef is very concerning. Slowly but surely many companies are starting to change their products they offer to more coral reef safe lines.

The sunscreen we put on to protect ourselves from the sun's harmful rays is doing incredible damage to the world's coral reefs and other marine life. A 2015 study found that just a small amount of sunscreen containing the ingredient oxybenzone is enough to break down coral, causing it to lose its nutrients, turn ghostly white or bleach and often die. The study was conducted in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

According to the study, 4,000 to 6,000 tons of sunscreen enters reef areas annually. But tourists at the beach aren't the only ones spreading harmful sunscreen chemicals to the coral reefs. Kids on playgrounds and athletes out for runs all come home and wash away the chemicals at home, and those chemicals can also end up being swept out to sea.

Research presented at the June 2016 International Coral Reef Symposium in Hawaii, studied 327 coral colonies off the coasts of Florida, Puerto Rico, and St. Thomas, St. John and St. Croix in the U.S. Virgin Islands to determine the reproductive potential of elkhorn coral, a threatened coral species that appears to be healthy.

In some locations, including the Florida Keys, the coral couldn't reproduce because it didn't have sperm or eggs. The researchers dubbed them "zombie corals," saying they were essentially walking dead and would eventually die out.

However, two samples from the St. Croix area had complete reproductive ability, the places with the heaviest tourism had the most severe damage. Researchers found that oxybenzone is common in Hawaii, Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands where concentrations peak during high tide.

The studies show that coral reefs are in more danger than we thought.

What is the solution?

In Hawaii, the governor signed a bill in May 2018 that would ban the sale of certain sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. However, the bill would not ban the use of it. So, tourists could pack sunscreen bought elsewhere and still use it on the islands. The law will go into effect in 2021.


Following in Hawaii's footsteps, Bonaire voted to ban similar sunscreens. The island council voted unanimously to adopt the motion and wants it to go into effect on Jan. 1, 2021. The motion asks the Executive Council to devise a concrete route in order to stop the use of products containing harmful elements.

However, medical professionals are worried that the ban would lead to higher risk of developing skin cancer and other dermatological conditions. We want to preserve the coral reef, but we don't want to diminish our use of sunscreen which has been proven to reduce risk for skin cancer.

But if you don't want to use sunscreen containing these ingredients, then what options do you have?

Although no sunscreen has been found to be completely safe for coral reefs, those with titanium oxide or zinc oxide as the active ingredients haven't been found to harm corals up to now. Covering up with hats, sunglasses and long-sleeved shirts or rash guards are an additional option. And always remember: "If it’s on your skin, it’s on the reef."

To avoid skin cancer you should protect your skin as much as possible, but try to avoid the most harmful ingredients and use of sprays. Don’t worry about the white cast of titanium and zinc oxide products, it shows where you have applied the protection and will disappear after several minutes.

Waterproof products seem to be the safest at the moment since it holds on to the skin the best and will not end up in the ocean that easily.

Be an active part of the solution

We can already see a difference in many skincare lines to take the latest findings into account an offer more coral reef friendly sun protective products. Remember the more people change their ways the higher the demand will be for safer products.

Please be aware that regular skin care products are not restricted by any regulations like medical skin care products and can tell you whatever they like. Don’t always belief when it states coral safe, or environmentally friendly, always take the time to read the active and non-active ingredients. Not only will you protect the precious coral reefs and other marine life but also your own health, since studies seem to also show some ingredients could be also a threat to your own health.

Here a list of ingredients that threatens the coral reef and might influence your own health

Any form of microplastic sphere or beads.

Any nanoparticles like zinc oxide or titanium dioxide.



4-methylbenzylidene camphor


Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA)







50 views0 comments


bottom of page