Here in the U.S., many tourists and beachgoers just wrapped up trips to the beach for the season. That also means that millions of people lathered themselves in sunscreen to protect themselves from harmful sun rays — a precautionary measure that you’re taught to do at a young age. But while this lotion protects humans, a growing body of research shows that it has an impact on oceans.
When mixed with water, one chemical in suntan lotion can react with sun and seawater to form compounds that are potentially hazardous to ocean ecosystems — one of which you may know as a disinfectant, hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). When found at high levels, H2O2 can inhibit the growth of phytoplankton — tiny organisms that form the basis of many food chains — and threaten some populations of bacteria and phytoplankton.
These findings are the results of a recent study in Environmental Science and Technology that looked at the impacts of sunscreen on beaches around Spain. With sun care product use increasing by seven percent over the last five years, the results of this study has one of the authors concerned about his local Spanish beaches, says Scientific American.
Other studies have honed in on the impacts of sunscreen on coral reefs. One study by NOAA’s National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science and partners found that benzophenone-2, another chemical found in sunscreen beauty care products, can have a range of impacts on corals, such as killing juvenile corals or causing them to bleach. A previous study found that four chemicals used in sunscreen can also lead to coral reef bleaching by triggering a dormant virus to come alive in zooxanthellae, the algae that lives in corals and give them their vibrant corals. These researchers estimate that bleaching specifically caused by sunscreen threatens 10 percent of coral reefs worldwide.
So, does this mean you should toss your sunscreen in the trash? Not really, say some scientists, since more research needs to be done on the impacts of sunscreen on ocean health. And as Slate pointed out in an article exploring sunscreen’s environmental impacts, many sun tan lotions include 17 ingredients approved by the FDA, making this a complicated issue. In the interim, keep an eye out for eco-friendly sun tan lotions, and wear a hat and beach cover-ups as often as possible.