OxybenzoneWilliam Mitch and his colleagues at Civil and Engineering at Stanford University, California have successfully delineated the mechanisms involved in regard to this toxicity. They have established that oxybenzone caused increased mortality of a sea anemone under conditions that simulated the natural (UV) radiation (290 to 370 nanometers). Furthermore they found that both the anemone and a mushroom coral formed oxybenzone–glucoside conjugates (see image below) that were powerful auto-oxidants. Corals are composed of layers, of calcium carbonate secreted by soft bodied animals called coral polyps. These polyps live in a symbiotic relationship with a host zooxanthellae such as algae that gives the coral its color. Corals devoid of algae are bleached as a consequence of climate change.
Algal symbionts took up these conjugates, and their mortality correlated well with the corresponding concentration of oxybenzone glucosides within the animal cells. Since many commercial sunscreens preparations contain compounds structurally analogous to oxybenzone, an understanding of the mechanism of this toxicity should enable the synthesis of more eco-friendly sunscreen products.
According to the authors of a paper published in a recent article in the prestigious journal, Science, “Research in the US Virgin Islands found no substantial settlement of coral larvae, survival of juvenile corals, or regeneration of adult tissue in induced lesions over a 5-year period in Trunk Bay, where high levels of recreational swimming resulted in up to 1.4 mg of oxybenzone per liter of seawater. Meanwhile, a thriving coral community was found at neighboring Caneel Bay, with lower recreational use but presumably the same impacts from global stressors. Exacerbation of coral declines by sunscreens washed off tourists would be ironic and particularly pernicious, given the promotion of ecotourism in the interest of protecting coral reefs.”
Finally, the authors go on to say that, “With recent moves by regulatory authorities in Hawaii and elsewhere to ban oxybenzone, understanding the mechanism(s) of its phototoxicity is important to ensure that the sunscreen components that are selected as alternatives are truly safer for corals.”
The ecological factors that promote and sustain the delicate balance in the natural world can easily be disrupted by human encroachment. It is vitally important to support the kind of scientific investigations that uncover these human factors and find ways to mitigate their impact.