Sunscreen, body lotion bad for coral reefs

Photo used for illustration purposes only

KUALA TERENGGANU – Sunscreen and skincare lotion applied to the body when doing recreational activities at sea such as snorkelling and scuba diving can threaten the existence of coral reefs.

That is what happens when tourists are more concerned about protecting their skin than understanding conservation and rehabilitation of the ocean’s precious treasures.


Universiti Malaysia Terengganu (UMT) coral researcher, Dr Tan Chun Hong said sunscreen and body lotion when applied, formed a layer on the surface of the skin to block sunlight.

“Studies show that body lotion and sunscreen are soluble in water which causes chemicals to be absorbed and accumulated in the corals.

“To a certain extent, it can cause coral bleaching, damage to the DNA, stunted growth in juvenile corals and can also lead to death of coal reefs if the quantity absorbed is too high,” he told Bernama recently.

The ingredients in sunscreen that are harmful to coral reefs include Oxybenzone, Benzophenone-1, Benzophenone-8, OD-PABA, 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor, 3-Benzylidene camphor, nano-Titanium dioxide, nano-Zinc oxide, Octinoxate and Octocrylene.

However, he said tourists could not solely be blamed simply because they did not know about the impact of their recreational activities as they had not been given sufficient awareness and education on the matter.

“The use of organic sunscreen and body lotion can help reduce the destruction of coral reefs,” he said, adding that the destruction was divided into two, namely natural factors such as strong currents and tsunami, and human activities that contributed to global warming such as El Nino that caused coral bleaching and reefs to erode and die.

“Many people think that tourism activities around the Malaysian islands are the biggest factor causing the destruction of coral reefs in the country but the assumption is inaccurate as every individual on this earth is responsible for the threat.

“Electricity consumption, carbon dioxide emissions, indiscriminate waste disposal, the use of pesticides in the agriculture sector and chemicals in the manufacturing industries, as well as environmental pollution are the main causes of climate change and global warming,” he said.

To date, the world has experienced three large-scale coral bleaching – 1997 to 1998, 2010 and most critically in 2016 to 2017 which resulted in a high death rate of the world’s largest coral reef ecosystem (Great Barrier Reef) located in Australia with 90 to 95 per cent in some areas there.

However, Malaysia is still fortunate that the impact of colour bleaching of corals causes five to 10 per cent deaths, but with global warming rising and uncontrolled, there will be repercussions.

“Although the recorded mortality is only five to 10 per cent, it is very serious because the growth of corals is very slow, with an average of only 10 centimetres a year. In fact, for massive corals, the growth rate is only one millimetre (mm) a year,” he said.

Asked on UMT’s role in ensuring sustainability of the coral reef ecosystem so that it could survive for future generations, he said several groups of its researchers were actively conducting studies related to the reproductive system and growth, and were recording as many locations as possible in the country’s waters.

He also suggested that the government implement zone classification to preserve the existing coral reefs in Malaysian waters to make it easier for enforcement agencies to monitor.

“We suggest that the government declare some zones for tourism recreational activities, special zones for research and also special zones that need to be closed for all activities so that their habitat remains undisturbed.

“Most important is the role of resort, snorkelling and scuba-diving operators to remind tourists not to touch the coral reefs and to use environmentally-friendly, organic skin lotion or cream when engaging in these recreational activities,” he said.