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Sunscreen —A Slimy Situation

Updated: Jun 25

Summer will be here before we know it. June 20th is just around the corner! Imagine packing your bag for a sunny-day excursion to the beach or a nearby park with family and friends. One item that most families have on their packing list for the day is sunscreen, the slimy substance that kids often whine about having to smear on their skin.

Sunscreen is oily, has a pungent odor that can be unappealing to some, and is hard to remove from your skin. Not only that, sunscreen can also have significant impacts on the environment. Practically the only thing sunscreen is good for is protecting your skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays.


Summertime Sunscreen Use

Sunscreen is an essential summertime product unless you want to risk irreversible skin damage. In a way, sunscreen is comparable to the ozone layer. The ozone layer prevents the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays from permeating the Earth’s atmosphere, just as sunscreen protects our skin from the ultraviolet rays that manage to slip past the ozone layer.

As summertime nears, many people begin to stock up on sunscreen before traveling or spending countless days lounging beside the pool. No matter what type you buy, sunscreen can have detrimental effects on the environment, specifically our oceans. Glittery sunscreens, scented sunscreens, high SPF sunscreens, and even organic sunscreens contain chemicals that harm aquatic life if washed into waterways.

6,000-14,000 tons of sunscreen make their way into waterways annually. To put this into perspective, a loaded 18-wheeler truck weighs about 40 tons. This means that anywhere from 150 to 350 18-wheeler trucks worth of sunscreen is deposited in waterways each year. The environmental impacts of the introduction of these chemicals to new waterways can have catastrophic consequences on ecosystems and food chains.

The Sunscreen Problem

Sunscreen is not a new product. Ancient peoples produced skin protection ointments using plant extracts and oils found in nature. Now, most sunscreens are composed of chemicals instead of natural ingredients because harvesting organic materials is expensive and labor intensive.

Sunscreens found in stores today are especially harmful to the environment because of the chemicals they are composed of. One such chemical is oxybenzone, first synthesized in 1906. This chemical is excellent at protecting human skin from the sun’s rays, but not so great at protecting Earth’s oceans.

Coral Bleaching

Oxybenzone is known to be the most destructive ingredient used to produce sunscreen. The most significant environmental issue associated with this chemical is coral bleaching, a phenomenon involving the expulsion of algae from the tissues of corals when they are under extreme stress, causing corals to appear white instead of colorful. This has not only aesthetic implications, but environmental implications concerning the health of ocean ecosystems.

Coral bleaching is ordinarily caused by environmental changes in temperature and light, but researchers have found a correlation between high oxybenzone levels from sunscreen and coral bleaching events.

Although coral can eventually recover from bleaching, it is a very long, difficult, and delicate process. Because of this, most coral bleaching events end with corals dying. Oxybenzone is known to cause DNA damage and deformities within coral which can make it even more difficult for these essential organisms to recover from environmental disruptions.

Biodiversity & Ecosystem Health

Oxybenzone affects not only coral, but also the species that call coral home. Coral accounts for 25% of marine habitats. There, species are protected from the elements, take care of their young, and hide from predators. Bleaching events make corals unsuitable habitats for aquatic life because they are unable to support the algae that provide nutrients for aquatic organisms. Excessive sunscreen use threatens the health of coral reefs which in turn threatens entire marine ecosystems.

Additionally, declining coral populations can have significant impacts on our own lives. Most of the fish we eat once lived in coral reef ecosystems. Compromising coral habitats can also compromise our fish supply. On top of this, the fishing industry often suffers from decreased fish catches. The fish that are caught are often malnourished or too thin to consume.

Luckily, many tourist destinations inform visitors of the importance of being environmentally friendly. For example, Hawaii has banned sunscreens that contain oxybenzone to attempt to protect the plethora of unique species that live within the region.

Individual Efforts — What YOU Can Do

One thing anyone can do to ensure harmful chemicals like oxybenzone aren’t continuously dumped into our oceans is be more conscious of the contents of the products you purchase. When buying sunscreen this summer, look for products that are reef friendly. These sunscreens are often formulated with ingredients that are less harmful to the environment such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide.

An alternative to buying sunscreen altogether is investing in swimsuits that have built-in UV protection. This provides full-body protection from harmful UV rays all while preventing further contamination of our waterways. Also, sunscreen can be expensive! Purchasing a product that protects you from the sun and can be worn multiple times is a better financial investment.

Get more deeply involved by signing petitions to ban sunscreens with harmful chemicals, sharing your concerns in an email to a sunscreen production company, or calling your representatives to let the government know that people care about this issue. Your actions will encourage the adoption of environmentally-friendly sunscreen practices by individuals and big businesses.

Lastly, always remember to leave no trace. Take empty bottles of sunscreen and other trash off the beach with you to prevent plastics and harmful chemicals from entering the ocean.



Summer is approaching quickly and sunscreen is an essential product for those who want to soak up the sun. Although some sunscreen products contain chemicals that are detrimental to coral reefs and the organisms that live within them, efforts have been made to reduce the large quantities of sunscreen dumped into our oceans annually.

But, we can do even better! With cleaner sunscreen products and UV-protectant bathing suits, individuals can easily make small changes to their summer lifestyle. Do your part in preventing these chemicals from contaminating our oceans by properly disposing of empty sunscreen bottles and educating the public about the impacts of these products on marine ecosystems.

Stay updated and active by following the Environmental Defense Initiative on Medium and our other social media platforms!

Author: Ann Catechis

Editor: Emma Mazzotta


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