The plight of the oceans’ coral reefs has become an increasingly urgent issue in recent years. Scientists have predicted that up to 4,600 square miles of coral reef may be killed this year – which will in turn jeopardize the future of the thousands of marine animals who inhabit them. Coral reefs have proven themselves to be remarkably resilient in many cases, but they still need our help to survive.

According to a new study published in the “Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology” on Tuesday, one way to help them is to stop using sunscreen that contains the chemical ingredient of oxybenzone.

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Researchers sampled waters around the coral reefs of Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands, and Eliat in Israel. The highest concentrations of oxybenzone were discovered in areas which were popular with tourists, due to high levels of sunscreen use in those locations.

The team discovered that in addition to killing living coral, oxybenzone also causes DNA damage in adult coral, and deforms the DNA of larval coral, which diminishes its chances of developing properly.

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But the destructive effects of this chemical do not end there. The researchers found that it also hinders larval coral growth by trapping the organisms inside their exoskeleton, which prevents them from drifting to new locations to form new coral colonies. Finally, it contributes to the disturbing phenomenon of coral bleaching, whereby coral reefs are stripped of the algae-like protozoan symbionts that promote normal growth. This causes the coral to lose its coral, and prevents them from growing any further until the protozoa return.

Downs warned that the continued usage of oxybenzone-containing products “needs to be seriously deliberated in areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue. We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers. Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this will achieve little if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment.”

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He recommended that beach-goers could turn to more environmentally friendly ways of protecting themselves from the sun. “Wear rash guards or scuba wetsuits and skip all the hygienic products when you go diving,” he advised. “If we could do it for a week at a time, people can certainly forgo it for a few hours to help protect these reefs for our children and their children to see.”

To find out how you can avoid oxybenzone in your personal care products – as well as other environmentally destructive or allergenic ingredients – check out the articles below:

Lead Image Source: USFWS – Pacific Region/Flickr