CALLS TO ACTION
Parts of the world are starting to restrict the use of over-the-counter sunscreens that have proven harmful to corals, marine life and, potentially, us.
How sunscreen damages coral reefs and what we can do about it.
THE SCIENCE IS CLEAR: THE MAJORITY of sunscreens damage coral reefs. And now North American holiday resorts are taking the first steps in controlling access to those proven harmful in order to protect their future business. A recent bill enacted in Hawaii will strip all retailers of over-the-counter (OTC) sunscreens c o n t a i n i n g o x y b e n z o n e ( a l s o k n o wn a s benzophenone-3) and octinoxate, starting in 2021. After that date, residents and travellers will only be able to buy those brands with a prescription. More than 3,500 products are expected to be outlawed under the new legislation. A number of marine parks in Mexico have already banned products using the two substances, saying they will confiscate any non-compliant sunscreen. Asia has yet to emulate such measures but the day they do may not be that far away, given the importance of reefs to tourism in the region. Some scientists and consumer groups say Hawaii’s legislation is too radical, pointing out that damage to reefs from sunscreen is miniscule compared to that from global warming, coastal development, agricultural runoff and oil spills. It is however one factor that private individuals can exercise control over, especially given that eco-friendly options are now readily available on the market. According to a 2008 study by Environmental Health Perspectives, 4,000 to 6,000 tonnes of suncream seeps into our oceans annually worldwide. The vast majority is from OTC brands – including certain lines from household names like Banana Boat, Coppertone and Neutrogena, containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. A 2015 study by Us-based non-profit o r g a ni s a t i o n Haereti c u s Envir o nmental Laboratory found that both oxybenzone and octinoxate make corals more susceptible to bleaching at lower temperatures and result in unhealthy, sometimes deformed, offspring. Oxybenzone, specifically, can cause juvenile coral to encase themselves in their own skeletons, eventually killing them. And it doesn’t take much to make a mark: the
same study revealed that the lowest concentration to see a toxic effect was 62 parts per trillion (ppt), which is equivalent to a few drops in an Olympic-sized swimming pool. Trunk Bay in the Virgin Islands National Park in the Caribbean measured concentrations at around 1.4 parts per million (ppm), while Hawaii ranged between 800 ppt and 19 parts per billion. Though oxybenzone pollution predominantly occurs around shorelines, according to Haereticus, traces of the chemical have been found on reefs more than 30km away from land as a result of transfer in sewage – meaning application anywhere, not just on beaches and at sea, will make its way to corals. “We have lost at least 80% of the coral reefs in the Caribbean . . . Any effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean a local reef survives a long, hot summer, or recovery for a degraded reef,” wrote lead author of the study, Dr Craig Downs. “Everyone wants to build coral nurseries for reef restoration, but this is an inconsequential effort if the factors that originally killed off the reef remain or intensify in the environment.” According to the International Programme on the State of Ocean (IPSO), oxybenzone also inhibits embryonic development in sea urchins; gives male fish female attributes; as well as reducing egg production and embryo hatchings in female fish. Oxybenzone and octinoxate have previously also been found to impair our own health. A study by the U.S. Centres for Disease Control says oxybenzone is linked to allergies, hormonal disruption and cell damage in humans. A companion study showed lower birth weights for baby girls among mothers exposed to the chemical during pregnancy. Octinoxate, meanwhile, is tied to endocrine disruption in animals and humans. Also, though Hawaii only bans sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate, IPSO says that the rest of the ingredient list in a typical cream is also damaging to both humans and marine life. Some are pheromone and endocrine disruptors; others inhibit fungal and bacterial growth. Most are non-biodegradable, meaning they will accumulate and stay part of biological systems, some even for generations afterwards. Outrigger Waikiki resort was one of the first to offer samples of environmentally friendly sunscreen, including brands All Good and Absolutely Natural, to their guests back in 2014. Now, Vice President of Corporate Communications, Monica Salter, wants to roll them out to all Opt for simple, mineral-based formulas as additions of pla nt-based oi ls li ke eucalyptus and lavender can be dangerous to invertebrates, and beeswax may contain industrial insecticides. Always choose lotions and creams over spray-ons, which are likelier to end up in the sand where turtles lay eggs. Pull on sun-protective clothing with ultraviolet protection factor (UPF) rating to minimise sunscreen usage.
their properties worldwide. “When Outrigger first started providing Ozone [Ayurvedics] reef-friendly sunscreen to our guests, many gave us quizzical looks,” she said. “Today we get many more ‘aha’ moments and nods from guests who are grateful for the product … I’m convinced that the overarching efforts of our Ozone initiative and Hawaii’s pioneering legislation on banning the sale and distribution of sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate will not only spark more consumer demand for the product but ignite a larger conversation about our critical role as stewards of these vital underwater ecosystems.” So long as the use of oxybenzone and octinoxate in sunscreens remains legal and there’s yet to be a recognised standard for ‘reef-friendly’ products, consumers need to be vigilant. Opt for mineral-based formulas made of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide containing only uncoated and non-nano ingredients, which are particles less than 35 nanometres in diameter, as any smaller particles could enter the cells of invertebrates and “[blow] up the cells so they die,” says Downs. Mineral-based formulas are also a healthier option for humans as they sit on the skin rather than seep within. Most so-called ‘reef-safe’ brands are only available at speciality stores or online. Names to consider include All Good, Stream2sea, Raw Elements, Vive Sana and Coola.