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Oxybenzone: Toxic to Reefs


Out of the many harmful sunscreen ingredients found in over-the-counter sunscreens, oxybenzone deserves a special mention on its own for its particularly notorious damage on coral reefs.


What is Oxybenzone?

Oxybenzone — also called benzophenone-3 and sometimes Milestab 9, Eusolex 4360, Escalol 567, or KAHSCREEN BZ-3 — is a chemical compound that functions as the active ingredient in the majority of over-the-counter sunscreens and many other personal care products and skincare products. It’s a UV-ray blocker that is very effective in slowing the absorption of harmful UVA and UVB rays by the human skin.

It was approved for use in the United States by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) in the early 1980s, and commonly appears in sunblock products alongside octinoxate, avobenzone, and homosalate, three companion chemicals in our list of the “Awful Eight.” 

How does it harm coral?

  • Several studies have shown that oxybenzone directly contributes to coral bleaching. If that weren’t enough, it also damages DNA of young coral reefs and disrupts their normal growth and development. This inhibits their ability to reproduce healthily and causes physical deformities that make them even more susceptible to coral bleaching — and even death.

  • Chemical sunscreens, overall, have been found to cause viral infection and starvation in corals.

  • Oxybenzone is equally toxic to other marine wildlife species, such as fish, as it is to coral. Certain experts think that its toxicity occurs at a concentration of 62 parts per trillion.

That’s one drop of water in 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools!

  • As a result, Hawaii has wisely moved to ban sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, a move that was then followed by the Pacific Island nation of Palau. Since then, other places like the Aruba and the city of Key Westhave followed suit.

How does it reach the ocean?

Oxybenzone can reach the ocean in the most obvious way…
  • It can directly enter the ocean when vacationers, swimmers, surfers, etc. use a toxic sunscreen while in the water. 
Or, this terrible chemical can enter our oceans through less obvious ways…
  • After being applied topically, oxybenzone is absorbed through the skin and excreted through urine, which flows into wastewater systems that eventually reach the ocean. The same happens for any oxybenzone that washes off skin as residue in a bath or shower.
This can happen whether you are vacationing on the beach inches away from the ocean, or landlocked applying sunscreen on a hot day in the city!
Experts think


...that's one drop of water in 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools


As harmful as oxybenzone is to coral reefs, it’s equally harmful to humans. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 97 percent of Americans have this chemical circulating in their bodies!

It’s considered a hazardous eye irritant and, as an allergen, is also known to cause skin allergies. As a hormone disruptor to coral, it also causes hormone disruption in humans, affecting estrogen production particularly in women and testosterone production in men.

At least one study showed oxybenzone exposure leading to lower testosterone levels in adolescent boys, as well as thyroid problems in both men and women.

There’s mounting concern that oxybenzone causes skin cancer, coming from research groups such as the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and other leading toxicology experts. A team of researchers at the State University of New York and the National Institutes of Health found a link between a concentration of benzophenones (the categorization to which oxybenzone belongs) and poorer reproductive success in men.

The same study found that oxybenzone exposure increased women’s risk of other diseases, like endometriosis, a painful condition that affects vital reproductive organs in women.