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Acute toxicity testing of TiO2-based vs. oxybenzone-based sunscreens on clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris)

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Given the prevalence of skin cancer, sunscreens are recommended by dermatologists including the American Academy of Dermatology to protect skin from harmful ultraviolet rays. Unfortunately, this leads to an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen entering waterways each year. Many of the chemicals in sunscreens, such as oxybenzone and benzophenone-2, are indicated to have adverse effects on corals and other aquatic life. As an eco-conscious alternative, physical barrier sunscreens, such as non-nano-titanium dioxide (TiO2), have been suggested as a replacement. This study examines the impact of a non-nano-TiO2-based sunscreen over a nationally sold brand of sunscreen containing oxybenzone, on clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris). Animals were evaluated for mortality, swimming behavior, and feeding behavior. Our data indicate that at an exposure level of 100 mg/L oxybenzone-containing sunscreen had a negative impact on mortality, leading to 25% death by the end of the 97-h testing period. Negative impacts on behavior were even more dramatic for the 100 mg/L oxybenzone-containing sunscreen, with 100% of the animals failing to feed over the first 49 h of testing and 100% of animals demonstrating abnormal swimming behavior over the entire testing period. By comparison, the non-nano-(TiO2) sunscreen at 100 mg/L had little (6.7%) negative impact on mortality and feeding. While swimming behavior was disrupted during the first 25 h of testing (26.7% abnormal movement), animals recovered well over the remainder of the testing period (out to 97 h).

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Meredith Alden, Patrick Brophy, Joling Campo, Elizabeth Cournan, Andrew Friedman, Austin Hunter, Sean McKenna, Nicholas Paz, Ellie Sawyer, and Seth Smalley.


This study was funded by Eckerd College Alumni, Ms. Autumn Blum. The primary funding utilized in this study was provided by Stream2Sea CEO Autumn Blum. The non-nano-titanium dioxide sunscreen products used in testing for this research were also provided by this company. The oxybenzone-based sunscreen was purchased commercially.

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Correspondence to Denise B. Flaherty.

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Throughout the duration of this experiment, guidelines provided by the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) were followed accordingly. Approval No. FLA16-001.

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Responsible editor: Philippe Garrigues

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Barone, A.N., Hayes, C.E., Kerr, J.J. et al. Acute toxicity testing of TiO2-based vs. oxybenzone-based sunscreens on clownfish (Amphiprion ocellaris). Environ Sci Pollut Res 26, 14513–14520 (2019).

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