Earth Watch: Chemical Sunscreens Are Polluting Our Waterways

If there is magic on this planet, it is contained in water. 
— Loren Eiseley

A mountain lake, a rushing river, a sea of Caribbean blue—what would this planet be without the magic of water? River to ocean to continent to poles, water connects all living things, but what impact do we have on it and the life it gives? How often do we consider the consequences of seemingly inconsequential daily habits, such as our personal care routines?


Image of beach scene with person applying sunscreen and a beach ball

A glimpse beneath the sea

A more magical place than the brilliantly colored universe of the coral reef is hard to find. Called the “rainforest of the sea,” reefs are among the most diverse ecosystems on the planet. Hosting a quarter of all marine life, they are habitats both pristine and rarified in their natural harmony.1 Yet, the reefs are dying; scientists estimate that nearly all will be in jeopardy by 2050. And with the death of coral reefs, we all lose—invaluable sources of food, medicine, shoreline stability, and economic benefits vanish.2

One of the most detrimental events for reefs is bleaching, a condition that happens when coral is severely stressed by warming oceans, pollutants, and other factors. When bleaching occurs, the coral expels its source of food and vivid color—zooxanthellae, the tiny algae that lives in its tissues. This separation leaves it colorless and starving, ultimately leading to mortality if conditions aren’t reversed in time.3 4

Adding insult to injury 

Oxybenzone and octinoxate, the active ingredients in 70 to 80 percent of commercial sunscreens, damage coral in multiple ways and can both directly and indirectly trigger coral bleaching. Consider the following: 

  • Chemical sunscreens like oxybenzone significantly drive viral production in seawater, activating latent viruses in zooxanthellae that result in bleaching.5 6
  • Oxybenzone intensifies the damage of warming water, accelerating mortality in some species and disrupting the coral’s microbiome defense.7
  • Additional sunscreen ingredients can enhance the bioavailability of the active chemical ingredients, increasing their toxicity.8
  • In studies at reefs around the world, even low doses of sunscreen chemicals like oxybenzone and octinoxate produced bleaching at all sites.

The sum of these effects is this: Damages inflicted by chemical sunscreens weaken the coral’s ability to adapt and survive in the face of its greatest peril, climate change.9

It's not just a day at the beach

Pollution from sunscreen can have a far-reaching impact, miles away from its origins. For example, public beaches in Okinawa, Japan contained high levels of chemical sunscreens. The startling thing is that similarly high levels were also detected in water 600 miles away, and chemical sunscreens have even been found in the Arctic! If ocean currents can carry these pollutants to the ends of the earth, the potential environmental consequences are frightening to consider.10 11

Down the drain doesn’t make them disappear

No matter where you live, your choices matter. Every time you jump in the shower, you're sending a trail of chemicals down the drain, and wastewater treatment plants can't remove them all. In fact, a University of Texas, Austin study concluded that "Conventional wastewater treatment plants do not effectively remove pharmaceuticals and personal care products.”12 So, where do they end up? Oxybenzone and octinoxate have been found in almost all water sources around the world! 

What’s bad for the planet is usually bad for you

Oxybenzone is a possible endocrine disruptor, which can negatively affect reproductive and thyroid health, alter nervous system function, contribute to the development of diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular problems, and neurological and learning disabilities. Unfortunately, our exposure is widespread.13 An estimated 97 percent of Americans have oxybenzone in their urine! Don’t forget—chemical sunscreens aren't just used in sunscreens. You'll find them in shampoo, lotion, makeup, and even fragrances and insect repellent.14

Choose your impact

Image of beach ball in the sand

At Natural Grocers we only sell mineral-based sunscreens, and do not allow chemical sunscreens in any products, because we believe the health of humans and the planet is inseparable. Together, let’s keep the magic from being lost!




  1. “Coral Reef Ecosystems.” Coral Reef Ecosystems | National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration,….
  2. “Coral Reef Risk Outlook.” Coral Reef Risk Outlook Dataset | Science On a Sphere,
  3. “What Is Coral Bleaching and What Causes It - Fight For Our Reef.” Australian Marine Conservation Society, 4 Mar. 2021,
  4. “Coral Bleaching.” Coral Bleaching | Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary,
  5. Raffa, Robert B., et al. “Sunscreen Bans: Coral Reefs and Skin Cancer.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 28 Nov. 2018,
  6. “(PDF) Sunscreens Cause Coral Bleaching by Promoting Viral Infections.” ResearchGate,….
  7. Wijgerde, Tim, et al. “Adding Insult to Injury: Effects of Chronic Oxybenzone Exposure and Elevated Temperature on Two Reef-Building Corals.” Science of The Total Environment, Elsevier, 4 May 2020,
  8. He, Tangtian, et al. “Toxicological Effects of Two Organic Ultraviolet Filters and a Related Commercial Sunscreen Product in Adult Corals.” Environmental Pollution, Elsevier, 13 Nov. 2018,
  9. Downs, C. A., et al. “Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands.” Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, Springer US, 20 Oct. 2015,
  10. Schneider, Samantha L., and Henry W. Lim. “Review of Environmental Effects of Oxybenzone and Other Sunscreen Active Ingredients.” Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Mosby, 14 Nov. 2018,
  11. Tsui, Mirabelle M.P., et al. “Occurrence, Distribution and Ecological Risk Assessment of Multiple Classes of UV Filters in Surface Waters from Different Countries.” Water Research, Pergamon, 18 Sept. 2014,
  12. 18, Sep, et al. “Is Your Sunscreen Contaminating the Water Supply?” Make Change - Where Money and Mission Meet, 15 Dec. 2020,
  13. Sunscreens, EWG's 2020 Guide to. “EWG's 2020 Guide to Safer Sunscreens.” EWG,
  14. DiNardo, Joseph C, and Craig A Downs. “Dermatological and Environmental Toxicological Impact of the Sunscreen Ingredient Oxybenzone/Benzophenone‐3.” Wiley Online Library, John Wiley & Sons, Ltd, 31 Oct. 2017,