Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands

  • C. A. DownsEmail author
  • Esti Kramarsky-Winter
  • Roee Segal
  • John Fauth
  • Sean Knutson
  • Omri Bronstein
  • Frederic R. Ciner
  • Rina Jeger
  • Yona Lichtenfeld
  • Cheryl M. Woodley
  • Paul Pennington
  • Kelli Cadenas
  • Ariel Kushmaro
  • Yossi Loya


Benzophenone-3 (BP-3; oxybenzone) is an ingredient in sunscreen lotions and personal-care products that protects against the damaging effects of ultraviolet light. Oxybenzone is an emerging contaminant of concern in marine environments—produced by swimmers and municipal, residential, and boat/ship wastewater discharges. We examined the effects of oxybenzone on the larval form (planula) of the coral Stylophora pistillata, as well as its toxicity in vitro to coral cells from this and six other coral species. Oxybenzone is a photo-toxicant; adverse effects are exacerbated in the light. Whether in darkness or light, oxybenzone transformed planulae from a motile state to a deformed, sessile condition. Planulae exhibited an increasing rate of coral bleaching in response to increasing concentrations of oxybenzone. Oxybenzone is a genotoxicant to corals, exhibiting a positive relationship between DNA-AP lesions and increasing oxybenzone concentrations. Oxybenzone is a skeletal endocrine disruptor; it induced ossification of the planula, encasing the entire planula in its own skeleton. The LC50 of planulae exposed to oxybenzone in the light for an 8- and 24-h exposure was 3.1 mg/L and 139 µg/L, respectively. The LC50s for oxybenzone in darkness for the same time points were 16.8 mg/L and 779 µg/L. Deformity EC20 levels (24 h) of planulae exposed to oxybenzone were 6.5 µg/L in the light and 10 µg/L in darkness. Coral cell LC50s (4 h, in the light) for 7 different coral species ranges from 8 to 340 µg/L, whereas LC20s (4 h, in the light) for the same species ranges from 0.062 to 8 µg/L. Coral reef contamination of oxybenzone in the U.S. Virgin Islands ranged from 75 µg/L to 1.4 mg/L, whereas Hawaiian sites were contaminated between 0.8 and 19.2 µg/L. Oxybenzone poses a hazard to coral reef conservation and threatens the resiliency of coral reefs to climate change.


Coral Reef Benzophenone Coral Species Seawater Sample Coral Bleaching 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.



The study in Israel was partially funded by the Israel Science Foundation (ISF) No. 1169/07 to Yossi Loya. No other organization or government provided Grant-in-aid funding for this project. The authors thank Dr. Jon Martinez and Dr. Katherine Schaefer for assistance with water sampling in Oahu, Hawai’i, Ms. Maya Vizel for her assistance with the planula exposure challenges, Dr. Gideon Winters for assistance with Molecular Dynamics microplate fluorimeter, and Dr. Fuad Al-Horani for his assistance with toxicological exposures. We sincerely thank Dr. Sylvia Galloway and Mr. James H. Nicholson for their work on formatting the figures for publication. We also wish to thank the U.S. National Park Service of the U.S. Virgin Islands National Park for their assistance. We wish to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their comments in improving the manuscript. C.A. Downs thanks the unidentified Virgin Islander in Cruz Bay who gave him insight into the hypothetical cause of the ecological collapse occurring at Trunk Bay; hypothesizing that the visible “sheen” on the surface of the water produced from swimmers’ sunscreen lotions was somehow impacting coral reef health.

Compliance with Ethical Standards

Conflict of Interest

The authors can identify no potential conflicts of interest, neither financial nor ethically, involved in the writing or publication of this manuscript.


The intent of this article is purely for dissemination of scientific knowledge, and is neither an endorsement nor condemnation of the activities of any government, corporation, their employees or subsidiaries, nor to imply liability on their part. This publication does not constitute an endorsement of any commercial product or intend to be an opinion beyond scientific or other results obtained by the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). No reference shall be made to U.S. NOAA, or this publication furnished by U.S. NOAA, to any advertising or sales promotion which would indicate or imply that U.S. NOAA recommends or endorses any proprietary product mentioned herein, or which has as its purpose an interest to cause the advertised product to be used or purchased because of this publication.

Supplementary material

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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2015

Authors and Affiliations

  • C. A. Downs
    • 1
    Email author
  • Esti Kramarsky-Winter
    • 2
    • 3
  • Roee Segal
    • 2
  • John Fauth
    • 4
  • Sean Knutson
    • 5
  • Omri Bronstein
    • 2
  • Frederic R. Ciner
    • 1
  • Rina Jeger
    • 3
  • Yona Lichtenfeld
    • 6
  • Cheryl M. Woodley
    • 7
    • 8
  • Paul Pennington
    • 8
  • Kelli Cadenas
    • 9
  • Ariel Kushmaro
    • 3
  • Yossi Loya
    • 2
  1. 1.Haereticus Environmental LaboratoryCliffordUSA
  2. 2.Department of Zoology, George S. Wise Faculty of Life SciencesTel Aviv UniversityTel AvivIsrael
  3. 3.Avram and Stella Goldstein-Goren Department of Biotechnology Engineering and the National Institute for Biotechnology in the NegevBen-Gurion University of the NegevBeer ShevaIsrael
  4. 4.Department of BiologyUniversity of Central FloridaOrlandoUSA
  5. 5.Pacific Biosciences Research CenterUniversity of HawaiiHonoluluUSA
  6. 6.Department of Life SciencesBen-Gurion University of the NegevBeer ShevaIsrael
  7. 7.Hollings Marine LaboratoryU.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric AdministrationCharlestonUSA
  8. 8.Center for Coastal Environmental Health and Biomolecular ResearchU.S. National Oceanic & Atmospheric AdministrationCharlestonUSA
  9. 9.National AquariumBaltimoreUSA

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