Are sun creams harmful to coral?

There has been a lot of fuss lately about sun creams. Various shores, such as Hawaii and Bonaire, have announced a ban on the use of sun creams that would damage coral and now everyone wants, of course, to know which creams are coral friendly. I think it is worth talking some more about this. Because I would mind if, all of a sudden, we decide not to apply any sun cream and sunbathe without any protection.

Oxybenzone and few more harmful sun filters are no longer allowed

Last year Hawaii was the first place to adopt a law prohibiting the use of certain sun cream products. A couple of weeks later Bonaire followed suit. The ban will begin in 2021. In the tropical paradise of Palau, in Oceania, it will be forbidden to apply certain products from next year onwards. It is, however, a misunderstanding to think that all sun creams will be banned there. What it does concern are products with, among other things, the sun filters Oxybenzone, Octocrylene and Octinoxate. Various studies have shown that these substances, which are mainly found in American products, can breakdown the coral.

There is still a lack of clarity about sun filters and coral

But let’s go back for a moment to the effect sun creams have on coral. There is still a lot we don’t know. Because there are still reservations to be had about the studies that have ensured the ban on the above sun filters. To be more specific, these studies were carried out in the laboratory using coral samples. If you look at the conclusions it appears that sun filters, even in extremely small doses, can cause damage. However, if you look more closely you’ll see that you still need to use a good deal of sun cream to reach those ‘small concentrations’ under normal circumstances. That is why there is much discussion between scientists as to whether you can transfer these results so easily into practical circumstances.

It is a fact that coral reefs are being threatened worldwide. And we know that climate change and pollution play a large part in this. But what part ingredients in sun creams have is difficult to say.

Will the ban help coral to survive?

I am, above all, very happy that ingredients in cosmetics (and in sun creams) are so closely scrutinised as well as the effect these have on our health and the environment. I have always been a great advocate of it. I truly hope that the questions we have will be answered through competent studies. But, at the same time, I don’t think we should lose sight of the bigger picture. I honestly wonder if a ban on specific sun creams is the initial solution for protecting our coral. Perhaps it helps a little and all the littles help but there are still a number of other important steps to take (climate change, rising temperatures, our farming). A lot of coral is also lost in places where there are no tourists and that has been the case for decades.

Which products can you use then?

We don’t have any bans on sun cream products in the Netherlands. Though I would say : avoid the disputed Oxybenzone, Octocrylene and Oxtinoxate, for the reasons I have given above. And, in fact, I myself have a handful of filters that you should avoid (you can find my list of good and bad filters here). But I also have a summary of products that I do trust.

100% biologically responsible sun creams don’t exist

I am often asked about so-called green products which are on the market. Don’t be taken in by terms such as ‘coral friendly’, environmentally friendly’ or ‘sustainable’ on sun creams. None of these claims are protected, so anyone can put this on their packaging. I have even found a ‘reef safe’ and ‘non-toxic to sea life’ sun cream on Amazon which ironically contains Oxybenzone!

Remember, as well, that biologically responsible sun creams don’t exist. That also applies to filters such as zinc oxide or titanium oxide that are labelled all over the internet as safe. Amazingly though, you don’t see that, for example, zinc oxide and titanium oxide could also perhaps be damaging to the coral…?

I will just say that all of this is not so clear cut… And I don’t think that there is really any one option which is without drawbacks.

What there is no doubt about is the risk of UV rays on the skin. I hope, therefore, that people will keep protecting themselves in the sun. The greenest option on the beach is to wear UV retardant clothing; then you can also apply less sun cream.

Kind regards,


Research Physician Cosmetic Dermatolgy


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