Are sunscreen products harmful to Bonaire’s ecosystems?

Dr. Diana Slijkerman of Wageningen Marine Research was on Bonaire last November to study the presence of potentially harmful sunscreens. She took water samples of Lac Bay and conducted a survey among visitors from cruise ships on the beach. The water samples will be analysed to find the concentration of organic UV filters and preservatives, and environmental risks will be assessed.

Many of the cruise tourists, lounging on the beach at Sorobon, are clueless about the unique nature area they are visiting. But these same tourists become a very interested audience, when they learn about the nearby reef, seagrass beds and mangroves.

The interviewers from the Sunscreen Awareness Bonaire team asked Sorobon beach guests about the sunscreens they use. Interviewers asked for the brand, SPF and whether the sunscreen product contained oxybenzone. This information will be used to create an overview that provides better insight in the brands that are used at Sorobon.

The overall project ‘Sunscreen Awareness Bonaire’ aims to gain information on this matter and to better educate all stakeholders.

A question frequently asked to the sunscreen interviewers was: ‘Which product should I use?’ A legitimate question, but not so easy to answer. Many sunscreen brands carry a wide variety of ingredients. Upcoming research will focus on what products are really eco-friendly, in order to advise the public from a science rather than marketing background.

Sunscreen Awareness Bonaire is a joint initiative of Wageningen Marine Research, Boneiru Duradero and The World Wildlife Fund for Nature in the Netherlands, in which scientific research and public awareness are combined. The project is partly funded by KD and KB projects.

Is Sunscreen a threat to Bonaire’s reefs?

Scientists have been researching the harmful effects of sunscreen on corals for more than a decade. The most leading scientist in this area of research, is Dr. Craig Downs Executive Director, Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL), Viriginia USA, who has focused his scientific research on oxybenzone; a UV filter used in many sunscreens. Craig Downs’ research has led to a dedicated community movement on Hawaii that has been raising awareness and that has also been advocating legislation to ban sunscreens with oxybenzone on Hawaii.

The threat that sunscreens containing Oxybenzone form to our reefs on Bonaire is very complex, but the solution can be quite simple.

The reality of today is that our reefs face many threats, such as climate change and the subsequent increase of water temperatures, and water pollution through sewage and sedimentation. In most cases, global environmental issues need global solutions. However, water pollution by sunscreens with Oxybenzone, is a global issue that can actually be solved locally. According to Dutch scientist Diana Slijkerman of Wageningen Marine Research, getting rid of harmful sunscreens on Bonaire is “totally do-able”.


  1. The effects of Oxybenzone

The UV filter Oxybenzone impacts the coral in various ways thereby affecting the corals natural integrity to withstand other pressures such as climate change, because it:

  1. Acts a hormone disruptor, and harms or kill coral larvae by inducing deformities;
  2. Induces DNA damage and viral infections;
  3. Bio-accumulates in coral tissue;
  4. May enhance coral bleaching.


In laymen terms this means that sunscreens containing Oxybenzone cause irreversible damage to corals in general, but are specifically life threatening to juvenile corals.


  1. Research of harmful effects sunscreen on Bonaire

Recent studies done by Dr. Diana Slijkerman (Wageningen Marine Research) also showed that Oxybenzone can be found on Bonaire. She studied the potential risks of Oxybenzone and three other UV-filters and has specifically looked at the concentrations in Sorobon, the nearby mangrove and Lac Cai, and estimated the risk of the actual concentrations towards the nursery areas in the surroundings. Contrary to three years ago, Bonaire now receives cruise ships all year round. Cruise ship tourists visit Sorobon with increasing frequency, resulting in a large increase in sunbathers. Consequently, these sunbathers increase the risk of sunscreen with potentially damaging UV filters ending up in the water of the Lac Bay area. The risk assessment performed shows that the environmental risk and potential effects resulting from this emerging pollution cannot be denied, especially in the scope of increasing tourism. Diana Slijkerman concludes that it would be wise to take precautionary measures to prevent future environmental effects.


  1. What can we do to preserve our reefs on Bonaire?

Bonaire is not the first to acknowledge the harmful effects of Oxybenzone in sunscreen products and hopefully not the last. Hawaii has paved the way for Bonaire and we can learn from the steps that they have taken to educate tourists and inhabitants. There are simple steps you can take to make a difference and safeguard coral reefs on Bonaire:

  1. Do not use sunscreens with Oxybenzone. Inform yourself and read the ingredient list; look for Oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone3 (or BP-3). Note: Manufacturers can make false claims, promoting their sunscreens as reef safe products. If sunscreens do contain Oxybenzone they are NOT reef friendly!
  2. Apply sunscreen at least 30 minutes before entering the water, this way the sunscreen has time to be absorbed to the skin, which decreases the wash off fraction when entering the water.
  3. Prefer lotions over spray cans, Aerosol spreads sunscreen much further so that it is able to form a film (thin layer) on the water surface;
  4. Avoid SPF above 50 (SPF 50 blocks 98% of UV rays, SPF 100 blocks 99%) SPF 30 to SPF 50 should provide adequate protection when used correctly. Sunscreens with higher SPF contain many more chemicals than lower SPF, but only offer a minimal increase in UV-protection.
  5. Wear protective clothing instead, such as long sleeved wet shirts and hats to protect against the sun. Clothes have their own UV protection rating, called UPF.  Synthetic fabrics have a higher UPF than cotton fabric, especially when wet.


Next steps for Bonaire

Boneiru Duradero and Wageningen Marine Research, with the support of the World Wildlife Fund for Nature in the Netherlands, are going to organize a seminar on the harmful effects of sunscreens containing Oxybenzone early next year. Lead speakers at this event are Dr. Craig Downs (HEL) and Dr. Diana Slijkerman (WUR), who will share their scientific research with participants.

The first goal of this seminar is to create island wide awareness about the possible threats to our reefs, caused by sunscreens with Oxybenzone. The second goal is to unite all resellers of sunscreen products on Bonaire in a common goal to only sell sunscreens that are FREE of Oxybenzone. Bonaires’ economy largely depends on healthy coral reefs and therefore it is not unreasonable to expect local businesses and inhabitants of Bonaire to contribute to pro-actively solve this potential problem. The hope is that this initiative will be carried forward by other islands in the region.


See the following links to published articles on this topic, to learn more:



Making a difference one meal at a time

Heart for Sustainable Bonaire Series featuring: Henri Verhoef of Wattaburger


Henri Verhoef has been managing Wattaburger for 11 years and he is ready for a change! Wattaburger sells all those fast food items, that we often crave: fries, hamburgers, and Dutch snacks such as the frikandel and kroket. Right now, Wattaburger specializes in Take-Out, but in the near future it will also become an Eat-In restaurant, where food is plated and more healthy meals are part of the menu. Customers of Wattaburger will still be able to order meals to-go, but if it’s up to Henri, the current plastic packaging of take-out will be changed into a more sustainable alternative.


Henri explains that he has looked into biodegradable packaging in the past, but that it was always too expensive to “Go Green”. That is why he likes the initiative for a collective buying platform on Bonaire. This platform will give small entrepreneurs the chance to get a better price because of increased buying volume, while also sharing the cost of transportation.


Henri feels that it is important for everyone on Bonaire to take their responsibility. He says: “Our island greatly depends on tourism and we all need to work together to protect Bonaire’s reef, for ourselves and for future generations. After all, there is more to life than making money!”