A toxic ingredient found in sunscreen is killing coral reefs around the globe and has been discovered in especially high-concentrations in beaches frequented by tourists, a new study reports.
The study, published Tuesday in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, concluded that the chemical oxybenzone — an ingredient that protects humans against the effects of ultraviolet light and is common in sunscreens — breaks coral down by leaching it of nutrients and eventually turning it white.
About 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion ends up in coral reefs around the world each year, with much of it containing oxybenzone. Not only does it harm coral, but the chemical has been shown to disrupt the development of fish and other marine life.
The report found the chemical kills coral three different ways: by altering its DNA, making it more susceptible to bleachings — when corals lose or expel the symbiotic algae that normally lives inside them, causing them to turn white — and acting as an endocrine disruptor, which causes baby coral to trap themselves in their own skeleton.
The study was done by a team of scientists from Virginia, Florida, Israel, and elsewhere.
Damaging effects on coral were found to start at concentrations as low as 62 parts per trillion, which is equivalent to one drop of oxybenzone in six Olympic-size swimming pools.
The chemical enters the ocean when beachgoers slather sunscreen on themselves before taking a dip, but also through wastewater streams that are sent to the sea.
Oxybenzone was found in the highest concentrations in coral reefs popular with tourists, particularly in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands, where the study was conducted.
"Coral reefs are tremendously valuable," John Fauth, co-author of the study and Associate Professor of Biology at the University of Central Florida, told BuzzFeed News. "Economic studies place their natural resource value in the billions of dollars."
"Coral reefs also protect shorelines from wave impacts, which is especially important during tropical storms and hurricanes," Fauth added. "So protecting and restoring coral reefs should be a top priority worldwide."
The American Dermatology Association did not immediately return BuzzFeed News requests for additional comment.
Oxybenzone is found in 3,500 sunscreen products that are manufactured worldwide, such as Coppertone, L'Oreal Paris, Hawaiian Tropic, and Banana Boat, according to the study. It is also found in nail polish, lotions, and lipstick.
The U.S. National Park Service recommended in 2013 using "reef friendly" sunscreen, which is made without oxybenzone and instead with natural ingredients such as titanium oxide or zinc oxide, and wearing clothing to protect from the sun.
"Hopefully, people will consider alternatives to sunscreens that contain oxybenzone," Fauth said to BuzzFeed News. "The easiest, and the one we used during our research, is to not use sunscreen at all and instead to use protective clothing: a hat and loose-fitting, long-sleeved shirt and long pants while on the beach or a boat deck, and a rash guard, dive skin, or wetsuit while in the water."
More information on ingredients in sunscreens can be found in a guide created by the non-profit Environmental Working Group.