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Scientists finally figured out why a chemical in sunscreen is harming coral reefs, Smithsonian Magazine reported.
Oxybenzone has been used in sunscreen products to protect against strong ultraviolet rays but some studies have shown that it can cause skin allergies and disrupt hormone functions, according to the American Cancer Society.
In a new study, researchers at Stanford University tested the effects of the substance and sunlight on anemones, which are closely related to corals. They also studied how oxybenzone affected the sea creatures with their algae and without.
The team observed that the anemones converted the chemical within their cells by combining it with glucose – or sugar – when exposed to sunlight. This process, however, turned the oxybenzone into a toxin, which eventually killed the animals.
The findings showed that all the anemones exposed to oxybenzone and sun died within 17 days, while those only exposed to the chemical survived.
The researchers also noted how the algae provided some defense against this process: Anemones with algae survived for more than two weeks, while the ones without only lasted a week.
A number of jurisdictions have moved to ban oxybenzone-containing sunscreens, while researchers are working on more environmentally-friendly alternatives.
Still, other scientists noted that changing the composition of sunscreens won’t have as much impact as mitigating climate change, pollution and overfishing – the three factors that have contributed to the loss of half of the world’s reefs since the 1950s.