STEM Around Us: Creating Environmentally Safe Sunscreens

In shallow waters close to the shores of islands and continents, there are colorful ecosystems called coral reefs. These reefs are built by coral polyps—a marine animal.

A coral reef
A coral reef. Sunscreens are safer for corals now, Credit: Wikimedia/Toby Hudson

Although they only occupy a tiny fraction of the Earth’s surface, coral reefs offer food and shelter to nearly 25% of marine life! These diverse habitats are often called the rainforests of the seas. Unfortunately, the rise of ocean temperatures has caused some of these reefs to lose their color through a process called bleaching. 


Sometime in 2016, a scientist named Craig Downs announced to the world that an ingredient in sunscreens called oxybenzone seems to disrupt coral polyps and puts coral reefs at risk of bleaching. Soon after, countries across the globe banned sunscreens that contain oxybenzone.


Since then, scientists have been on the hunt for the next generation of sunscreens that are not only effective but also environmentally safe. Most scientists have turned to animals that can naturally filter out harsh sunlight for answers! 


One exciting group of compounds is mycosporine-like amino acids (or MAAs for short). Many kinds of algae and fungi use these nitrogen-based compounds as sun protection. This is just one of the many sun-care solutions that the ocean can offer!


While the potential of these compounds is exciting, scientists are worried that extracting these compounds may be harmful to the environment. Even with caution, there’s still a long way to go before they can be a part of your skincare routine. 

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