Sandy beaches line most of the world's oceans and are highly valued by society: more people use sandy beaches than any other type of shore. While the economic and social values of beaches are generally regarded as paramount, sandy shores also have special ecological features and contain a distinctive biodiversity that is generally not recognized. These unique ecosystems are facing escalating anthropogenic pressures, chiefly from rapacious coastal development, direct human uses — mainly associated with recreation — and rising sea levels. Beaches are increasingly becoming trapped in a ‘coastal squeeze’ between burgeoning human populations from the land and the effects of global climate change from the sea. Society's interventions (e.g. shoreline armouring, beach nourishment) to combat changes in beach environments, such as erosion and shoreline retreat, can result in severe ecological impacts and loss of biodiversity at local scales, but are predicted also to have cumulative large-scale consequences worldwide. Because of the scale of this problem, the continued existence of beaches as functional ecosystems is likely to depend on direct conservation efforts. Conservation, in turn, will have to increasingly draw on a consolidated body of ecological theory for these ecosystems. Although this body of theory has yet to be fully developed, we identify here a number of critical research directions that are required to progress coastal management and conservation of sandy beach ecosystems.