Covering your body up with sunscreen may protect you against the Sun, but it’s also threatening the world’s coral reefs, a new study found. University of Central Florida professor and diving enthusiast John Fauth and his team found that oxybenzone, a common UV-filtering compound, is in high concentrations in the waters around Hawaii and the Caribbean, two areas rich in corals. They found that not only does the chemical kill the corals, but it also causes DNA damage in adults and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage.

Lathering up with sunscreen may prevent sunburn and protect against cancer, but it is also killing coral reefs around the world. That’s the conclusion of a team of international scientists, which includes University of Central Florida professor and diving enthusiast John Fauth. Credit: UCF: Nick Russett

Coral reefs are threatened as it is. Just two weeks ago, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) raised an alarm about the terrible plight of coral bleaching. For the third time in recorded history, we’re facing a massive coral bleaching crisis, the agency said.

“We are losing huge areas of coral across the U.S., as well as internationally,” said Mark Eakin, NOAA’s Coral Reef Watch coordinator, citing climate change and events like the current El Niño as primary reasons for the mass die-off.

Sadly, this study brings even more bad news to the table; the product they studied is virtually ubiquitous in sunscreen products, and the damage it does is two-fold.

“The chemical not only kills the coral, it causes DNA damage in adults and deforms the DNA in coral in the larval stage, making it unlikely they can develop properly,” a news release reported.

Even very small quantities of the substance can do great damage. They found that the equivalent of “a drop of water in a half-dozen Olympic-sized swimming pools” is enough to cause damage. Executive director and researcher Craig Downs of the non-profit scientific organization Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia was also involved in the study.

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“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” said lead researcher Craig Downs. “We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers.”

To give you a scale of the problem, this isn’t something that only threatens corals. Corals are vital for oceanic ecosystems, and if they collapse, entire ecosystems will collapse with them.

“Coral reefs are the world’s most productive marine ecosystems and support commercial and recreational fisheries and tourism,” Fauth said. “In addition, reefs protect coastlines from storm surge. Worldwide, the total value of coral reefs is tremendous. And they are in danger.”

Many reefs around the world have already taken massive damage, and have almost entirely collapse.

“The use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue,” Downs said. “We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers. Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this will achievelittle if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment.”

So, if possible, try using sunscreen products that don’t have oxybenzone, and for everyday divers:

“Wear rash guards or scuba wetsuits and skip all the hygienic products when you go diving,” Fauth said. “If we could do it for a week at a time, people can certainly forgo it for a few hours to help protect these reefs for our children and their children to see.”

The corals will thank you.

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