20 June 2019 - With up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen being washed off people into oceans each year, it’s time for all of us to understand how sunscreen damages coral reefs. Our simple and allegedly healthy habit of putting on lotion before exposing ourselves to UV radiations is indeed taking its toll on marine life and biodiversity.
Record heat registered in the past years, pollution, and a series of other environmental factors caused the bleaching of over 50% of the coralin Australia’s Great Barrier Reef. Based on the latest trends, scientists predict that about 90% of the world’s coral will be threatened by 2030 (NOAA Coral Reef Risk Outlook).
Since the ocean gives us most of the oxygen we breath, a loss of marine bio-diversity poses a risk to human life everywhere.
According to research (International Coral Reef Initiative, 2018), one of the main causes of coral bleaching is sunscreen; more precisely oxybenzone and octinoxate (NCBI, 2018), two compounds found in most sunscreens.
Specialists concerned about the decline of coral reefs have conducted numerous studies that showed the impact cosmetic products, and above all sunscreen, have on the ecosystem.
Several studies carried out in various parts of the world showed that these chemicals could stress corals and awaken their viruses. When corals become sick, they expel their life-giving algae. The result is coral bleaching, followed by coral death.
With research telling us that tons of sunscreen is washed into the reef areas annually, the negative effects could be devastating. This is why popular diving and snorkeling destinations have started to ban sunscreens containing the harmful chemicals.
Up to date, four of the most popular beach destinations (including Palau, see beautiful coral reefs view below) have introduced official bans, numerous vacation spots in one country ban non-biodegradable sunscreens despite the lack of official regulations, and many other countries are believed to follow the example.
In this article, we will take a deep dive into why and how toxic sunscreen chemicals are damaging the marine life, destinations that already banned toxic sunscreens, and what you can do to help protect both yourself and the corals of our oceans.
How Exactly Sunscreen Chemicals Harm Coral Reefs?
A study published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology in 2016 highlights that the chemical oxybenzone may be contributing to the destruction of coral reefs (Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral...).
It has been shown that oxybenzone causes DNA damage and endocrine disruption which could lead to coral bleaching and potentially death.
Coral bleaching is by far the specialists’ main concern. Through this process, corals reject their symbiotic organisms and lose their color. The rejection of these organisms also weakens corals, making them more prone to contracting viral infections.
Considering that toxicity occurs at a minimal concentration, people swimming in the proximity of coral reefs should avoid the use of chemical sunscreen completely.
According to a study conducted by the University of Tel Aviv, the equivalent of a drop of sunscreen into an Olympic swimming pool can pose a significant ecological threat.
Besides damaging the coral reefs, specific chemicals in sunscreens may also be harmful to humans. Oxybenzone, alongside other chemicals found in regular sunscreens, can trigger skin allergies, irritation, rashes, and may even cause skin cancer.
How Can We Protect Both Ourselves and The Coral Reefs?
While the researches mentioned above highlight the huge negative impact sunscreens can have on the coral reefs and marine life, the researchers’ intention was not to advocate against the use of sunscreen. Parallel studies have shown that sunscreen protects against skin cancer and it is essential to wear it when planning to stay out in the sun for longer than 20 minutes.
Perhaps the most misunderstood thing about sunscreen bans regards the products that are indeed banned. Many people believe they can’t use any type of sunscreen in these areas, which is simply untrue.
In fact, governments know that skin cancer is one of the main causes of deaths in the world; therefore, certain types of sunscreens can still be used throughout the world to protect yourself against sunburns and skin cancer.
Furthermore, there are additional ways to keep harmful UV rays away from your skin while safeguarding the corals too.
Here are three simple steps you should take to protect both yourself and the coral reefs:
1. Understand Which Sunscreen Ingredients to Avoid:
With the bans in place, it is clear that you can only use reef-friendly sunscreens free ofoxybenzone and octinoxate. Most of these products are defined as mineral-based sun blocks due to their active ingredients, which are either zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or both.
However, not all mineral-based sunscreens were created equal. In an attempt to make their product more cosmetically appealing, some manufacturers use nanoparticles of these minerals that can be ingested by corals.
For this reason, the sunscreen you use in reef areas should contain non-nano size particles which are slightly larger. They may leave a whitish residue on your skin, but that’s a small price to pay if you care about our environment.
Furthermore, the Haeraticus Environmental Lab and the Environmental Working Group are two other important resources. The former publishes annual lists of chemicals that can damage the reefs and the environment, while the latter explains the environmental impact of standard sunscreens, including the potentially harmful effects oxybenzone may have on adults and children.
Also please keep in mind, when choosing the sunblock, you should also avoid aerosols, as the mist of sunscreen is very probable to fall on the sand, from where it can easily wash into the ocean. Creams and lotions are the way to go.
2. Which is Better? Nano or Non-Nano Particles Sunscreen?
With most cosmetic brands using fancy names to describe the qualities of their products, understanding what’s the difference between a sunscreen with nanoparticles and one that contains non-nanoparticles could be confusing.
In essence, it’s all reduced to size. A nanometer is one thousand-millionth of a meter. A particle this size can only be observed with a special microscope, and a nanoparticle is any particle with a size between 1 and 100 nanometers.
Research has evidenced that zinc oxide nanoparticles larger than 35nm are safe to the environment. However, according to cosmetic industry experts, they provide poorer UV protection.
So, why do some brands use nanoparticles in their sunscreen?
The reason is simple. Zinc oxide, as well as titanium dioxide, in its non-Nano form, is a white powder that keeps its color when mixed with the other components of sunscreen lotion. The result is a whitish shade on your skin after applying the product.
Zinc oxide nanoparticles are clear and provide an aesthetically more appealing finish. That’s why some people tend to choose biodegradable sunscreens containing nanoparticles of the active compounds.
Some research has shown that sunscreens that employ nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can produce reactive oxygen species under UV radiations.
These reactive oxygen species are free radicals which, in high concentrations, cause oxidative stress to marine organisms including corals, with subsequent cell damage and ultimately death.
Zinc oxide nanoparticles with a size lower than 35nm are more harmful than their titanium dioxide counterpart, mainly because titanium dioxide nanoparticles are often coated with magnesium, aluminum, or silica, compounds that eliminate the UV reactivity.
Considering that photoactive nanoparticles used in sunscreens also provide lower sun protection, it only makes sense to pick a biodegradable sunscreen containing non-nanoparticles of active ingredients.
3. Wear Protective SPF Clothes, Pick Shady Spots
Many apparel manufacturers, especially brands making beach apparel, incorporate UV protection factors directly into the fabrics they use. These garments are a great alternative to sunscreen, helping you limit its use with up to 90% when you’re not sunbathing.
These garments include shirts, shorts, hats, and even scarves. Furthermore, SPF beach gear, including beach tents and umbrellas, can further reduce the risk of sunburns and skin cancer even if you’re not using sunscreen at all.
Using these alternative options to reduce the use of sunscreen is not only good for the environment. It will also save you money in the long run.
While going to the beach is synonymous with soaking in the sun, you should do it responsibly. Avoid exposing yourself – or the youngsters – during peak hours. The best time to sunbathe is early in the morning and in the afternoon.
For the rest of the day, pick a shady spot for beach games and relaxing. Mini pools smartly positioned under an umbrella or beach tent provide sufficient entertainment to the little ones, keeping them protected from the harmful rays.