How our sunscreen is damaging the ocean

How our sunscreen is damaging the ocean

Heard about how our usual sunscreen is damaging our marine life and coral reefs? Sailors, it's time for us to seek reef-safe, ocean-friendly suncream...

The golden rule when spending time in the sun is to cover-up and sunscreen-up. These tips are generally the best when it comes to protecting our skin from potentially harmful UVA and UVB rays and the secondary health impacts they may cause, such as skin cancer.

There tips are now well-known. Perhaps less-known it the harmful effect that the personal care products, including sunscreen, are having on our marine environment….

It has been well documented over recent years that alongside climate change and warming sea temperatures, sunscreen has been a major contributor to the decline of coral reefs.

Sailors, we need to switch our sunscreen!


Sunscreen is made up of a variety of substances and chemical stabilisers which are geared to reflect, scatter or absorb UV light and whilst sunscreen is helpful in protecting our skin against the sun, but it isn’t a natural substance nor native to our ocean environments.

Anything we apply to our bodies is either absorbed or washed off when we bath, shower or swim. So, when we wash ourselves off on our boats, with sunscreen on, the water heads straight to the bilge then is usually pumped out into the sea. Similarly, when swimming with sunscreen on, particularly in shallow areas and high-use beauty spots, sunscreen contaminates the water.

According to research up to 14,000 TONS of sunscreen ended up on coral reefs across the world every year.

The result of sunscreen in water = bleaching coral and negative impacts on the biodiversity of our seas and proper functioning of our reef ecosystems.



Sunscreen has several harmful impacts on marine life – coral, in particular.

Studies have shown that sunscreen causes corals to get stressed. When corals get stressed, they begin to ‘bleach’; basically, kicking out the very algae they rely upon to survive. If they stay stressed for too long or they can’t recover from whatever caused them to bleach, they die.

First things first - a bit about coral:

Corals are ANIMALS. That’s right – they aren’t inanimate or even plants, but living, breathing animals just like you, me, your dog or pet rabbit. They are highly sophisticated and as sensitive to stress, temperature changes, light and nutrients as you or I.


Healthy coral


The key thing about most corals is that they grow in shallower waters, which are warmer and brighter. This means that many corals THRIVE on UV rays. So, when they get covered in sunscreen, manufactured to block OUT many UV rays, their ability to function properly, and in many cases, just survive, is obviously inhibited.

Given that corals are living, breathing and eating animals, they are also absorbing the sunscreen into their systems, which sadly is where so much further damage is done.


"...the beauty of this ecosystem, how special it is. How vital it's health is to our whole planet and whole civilisation." 

- Dr Andy Lewis, Coral Sea Foundation


A few particular chemicals in sunscreen (oxybenzone and benzophenone) have been highlighted in particular as nasty to marine life and corals, right down to their DNA, causing abnormal skeleton growth, birth defects, decreased fertility and decreased reproduction, change in biological sex characteristics (i.e. female characteristics in male fish) and death. In dolphins, the chemicals are accumulated in their tissue and even transferred to their young.


Coral reefs have formed highly diverse and precious ecosystems on our planet and are home to millions of marine species and food for millions of other species, including our own. Given that corals form protective and sheltered areas within the ocean, they are also fundamental as spawning, breeding, nursery and feeding grounds for marine life. The fish nurtured here then grow to become a significant food source for much of the ocean’s food chain AND for over a billion people worldwide.

According to Fish Forward, over 800 million people are dependent on fishing globally, and over 97% of the world’s fishing workforce living in developing countries. Healthy fish and prevalent fish are therefore the basis of income as well as an intrinsic part of protein nutrition for a huge portion of our human planet.


" really is like the canary in the coal mine - if we are not attentive to what's going on in our coral reefs then we aren't aware of the trajectory of us on this planet."

- Dr Andy Lewis, Coral Sea Foundation


Aside from our providing food for us and supporting a global food chain across species, reefs are also incredibly important in slowing down and reducing the power of waves coming towards shore from the ocean, This natural buffer against storm waves and currents helps to slow down the erosion of our coastlines and actually makes many of our waters safe to swim in.

Corals have created the largest natural structures ever seen on our planet, and many established reefs in our seas are between 5000 to 10,000 years old – once they are destroyed, there is by no means a short or easy way for them to regrow and  sustain such life, once again.


What we can do

As you can see, risking the health of corals is not something we can afford, but we can easily start to remedy our impact and protect from further damage by simply switching some of the products we use.

When it comes to choosing sunscreen, choose accredited reef-safe, ocean-friendly sunscreen. It’s a little bit more expensive than normal sunscreen but most importantly protects our skin AND our oceans.



We at Clean Sailors like to use Himaya's genuinely ocean-friendly natural sunscreen 

Here is Save the Reef’s Sunscreen Guide on how best to choose genuinely reef-safe sunscreen, too.


Thank you to Dr. Andy Lewis, CEO of Coral Seas Foundation and our friends over at Save The Reef


Recommended watching

Chasing Coral, which is available on Netflix - a poignant and deep discovery into the dramatically changes occurring on the reefs. A real (albeit sometimes emotional!) education.