The Impact of Sunscreen on Coral

April 18, 2017 Brad Peebler

The Impact of Sunscreen on Coral

The Impact of Sunscreen on Coral

By Charley Peebler

What is coral?

What is coral?  Is it animal, vegetable, or mineral? Well, it’s all of them at the same time.  Coral is a marine animal that builds a limestone structure to support their small, fleshy bodies.  It contains an algae called zooxanthellae ( zoh-uh-zan-THEL-ee ) that supplies the coral with sugars to ingest as food, and the coral provides the zooxanthellae a home; this is called a symbiotic relationship.  The coral also hunts for itself using tiny tentacle-like arms that sprout out of its anemone-like body to catch ocean drifters like plankton.[2]  Corals are very important to our planet.  They support 25% of all known marine fish, and yet they cover just 0.2% of the ocean floor.[3]  That’s like having 1.85 billion people living in the state of Oregon when the current population of Oregon is about 3.9 million people[4].  Even though they can be microscopic, corals create a habitat enriched with life supporting the entire ocean ecosystem.[5]

What impact does sunscreen have on coral?

A terrible one. When sunscreen enters a reef, it is absorbed by the coral and awakens dormant viruses in the zooxanthellae which multiply until the algae explodes. The coral is deprived of important nutrients and starves.[6]  “The algae that live in the coral tissue and feed these animals explode or are just released by the tissue, thus leaving naked the skeleton of the coral,” said study leader Roberto Danovaro of the Polytechnic University of Marche in Italy.[7]

The culprits of this mess are some of the active ingredients of sunscreen.  Here are the “dos” and “don’ts” if you want to wear sunscreen as you frollick and play in the ocean[8]:

Do use sunscreen with:

1)    Zinc Oxide

2)    Titanium Dioxide

Titanium dioxide is in quite a few brands, but you have to be careful because many of them also contain unsafe chemicals such as what is listed below.

Don’t use sunscreen with:

1)    Oxybenzone

2)     Octisalate

3)     Avobenzone

4)    Homosalate

5)    Octocrylene

6)    Octinoxate


It may seem like there is no hope. We can’t get sunburned but we can’t use sunscreens.  Good news!  There are a lot of sunscreens that use zinc oxide, but unfortunately the market has grown around coral unsafe sunscreens. One of my favorite brands is Elta MD and their UV Pure SPF 47 sunscreen. Find Out more at:, .

If you take the right steps, you can be a part of saving coral reefs and countless species simply by using coral-safe sunscreen.[9]

 ealthy Coral Reef | Photo by Paul Nicklen

ealthy Coral Reef | Photo by Paul Nicklen

[1] Find picture at:, 2015

[2] Teach Ocean Science, “Coral Reefs and Climate ChangeWhat is a coral?”,, 2016

[3] Defenders of Wildlife, “Basic Facts About Coral Reefs”,, 2016

[4] Suburban Stats, “Oregon Population Demographics 2017, 2016”,, 2016

[5]  Fink’s Photos, “Palau – Finks Photos – Atlanta, GA, USA”,, 2007

[6] National Geographic, “Swimmers’ sunscreen Killing Off Coral”,,  2008

[7] National Geographic, “Swimmers’ sunscreen Killing Off Coral”,,  2008

[8] Info provided by Goddess Garden Sunscreen, more info at:

[9] Defenders of Wildlife, “Basic Facts About Coral Reefs”,, 2016