For sunburn-prone beach-goers, sunscreen is the nectar of the gods, a creamy shield that protects human skin from harmful ultraviolet rays. While sunscreen is an essential item to pack in your summer beach bags, research tells us that we may want to consider some alternatives to our beloved drugstore sunblocks in order to save marine life.

A new study published in the ACS journal Environmental Science and Technology warns that certain ingredients in sunscreens can rub off the skin in water and kill the ocean’s tiniest inhabitants – phytoplankton. Common chemical ingredients in sunscreens – such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide – can react with UV rays and form harmful compounds such as hydrogen peroxide.

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In the study, researchers sampled the Mediterranean waters of Palmira beach and realized that titanium dioxide from sunscreen is responsible for a dramatic increase in hydrogen peroxide levels in coastal waters, which destroys phytoplankton.

Phytoplankton are microscopic algae that act as the base of marine food chains, feeding everything from small fish (which sustain dolphins) to filter-feeding whales. Humpback whales, for example, will filter about 4,400 pounds of plankton, krill, and other small organisms a day while the humongous blue whale can filter up to 9,000 pounds of food daily. If phytoplankton cease to be abundant in marine ecosystems, cetaceans in phytoplankton dead-zones will surely suffer as a result of a lack of food resources.

If that doesn’t sound scary, you should probably know that phytoplankton provide nearly half of the world’s total supply of oxygen. If phytoplankton die out, we can say goodbye to a large chunk of our breathable air!

So obviously our only option is to skip the sunscreen this summer, right?

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WRONG. Sunblock is an important way to protect your skin from excessive sun exposure and, luckily, there are alternatives to products that do not contain these harmful chemicals. There are several companies who have created organic sunblocks using vegan-friendly ingredients. These products do not harm the environment, and they are just as beneficial as your everyday, drug-store brands! You can also check out this article with some easy tips on how you can protect your skin in eco-friendly ways.

When you set out to get that summer tan, remember that protecting your skin is just as important as protecting the oceans and the many animals that inhabit them!

Image source: Robert S. Donovan/Flickr

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