Sunscreen & Marine Life: The Impacts

Source: Pixabay 

With the warm season in full swing, sunscreen is essential in protecting against harmful UV rays, which can contribute to a plethora of health issues such as skin cancer. Whilst it’s proven to protect the skin, a recent study from Stanford University1 showed that common chemicals found in sunscreens are highly toxic to marine life.

Sunscreen is washed off the skin once water hits it – if you take a swim in the sea, sunscreen can wash off and if you take a shower, it will wash off and end up at your water treatment plant adding to the human-induced stressors marine environments are experiencing.


Some of the threatening effects observed include:


Dolphins: Chemicals accumulate in tissues causing hormonal imbalances which are transferred to the young.


Fish: Can cause endocrine dysfunctions leading to decreased fertility as well as female characteristics in male fish.


Coral: Accumulates in tissues which can induce bleaching2 and DNA damage.


Mussels: Induces stress responses and defects in the young.


Sea Urchins: Induces immunotoxicity as well as endocrine dysfunctions, causing deformations in the young.

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How do I protect myself and marine life?

The first step in using reef-safe sunscreen is checking the ingredients list. Due to poor regulation, brands are not required to test if products are impacting marine life therefore, labels claiming ‘reef-safe’ or ‘reef-friendly’ are often untrustworthy.


Make sure your sunscreen does not contain harmful ingredients like:

·       Oxybenzone

·       Octinoxate

·       Octocrylene

·       Benzophenone

·       3-Benzylidene camphor

·       4-Methylbenzylidene camphor

·       “Nano-sized” zinc or titanium; opt for micro-sized mineral sunscreens as nanoparticles are extremely toxic in high concentrations

·       Microplastics, such as “exfoliating beads” as these build up on reef surfaces, impeding photosynthesis

More information can be found here.


When possible, consider sunscreen alternatives like wearing Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) 50+ clothing and hats, seeking shade during hours of high UV index (usually midday), and using umbrellas. Don’t forget to grab your broad-spectrum sunglasses to avoid long-term eye damage caused by UVA and UVB rays.













1 D. Vuckovic et al., Science 376, 644 (2022)

2 NOAA. What is coral bleaching? National Service website, 12/01/2021



By: Stefania Scurtu

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