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Most Sunscreens Can Harm Coral Reefs. What Should Travelers Do?

Recent studies have led to a global push for more reef-safe sunscreens.CreditChip Litherland for The New York Times

Recent studies have led to a global push for more reef-safe sunscreens.Credit: Chip Litherland for The New York Times

Avoiding non-biodegradable sunscreen may be the one solution to coral bleaching travelers have the most immediate and direct influence over.

After decades of learning that sunblock is vital to a healthy beach vacation, consumers may wonder what’s wrongAfter decades of learning that sunblock is vital to a healthy beach vacation, consumers may wonder what’s wrong with their Coppertone. But recent studies that link the active ingredients in protecting skin from damaging ultraviolet rays to coral bleaching has led to a global push for more reef-safe sunscreens.

Chemicals in sunscreen that come off while swimming or travel through sewage systems when washed off in the shower are “bigger than climate change,” in causing coral reef damage, according to Craig Downs, the executive director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory based in Clifford, Va., which has studied the effects of sunscreen on coral reefs.

In 2015, Mr. Downs led a team that reported that oxybenzone, a common chemical found in sunscreens, is toxic to the symbiotic algae that live within corals, which provides their color and performs other vital duties, and also stunts the growth of corals. A 2008 European study published by Environmental Health Perspectives concluded that sunscreen promotes viral infection in corals that can lead to bleaching. They estimated that up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen is deposited in the world’s oceans each year.

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