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Sunscreen ban: coral reefs and oxybenzone


July and August bring the hottest days of the year to the US, and along with the heat, plenty of sunshine. Since its inception in the mid 1930s, sunscreen has become a household staple. Memories of days spent at the beach are sparked by that familiar scent of sunscreen, where seemingly everyone slathers it on to protect their skin from damaging rays. Sunscreen doesn’t only affect skin, however- it can seep into the water when someone swims, or if they use spray-on sunscreen, the particles can easily float off in the wind and settle elsewhere from the intended target.

As sunscreen use increased in recent decades, so has it’s impact on the environment. In 2018, Hawaii was the first US state to reach a breaking point- Governor David Ige signed a bill banning the sale of sunscreens containing chemicals shown to harm coral reefs. Florida is planning a similar ban, but has been met with resistance from skincare companies such as Johnsen and Johnsen, citing health concerns for Floridians.

Let’s talk specifics

Why is sunscreen such an issue for reefs? Studies from as far back as 1999 have shown that skincare chemicals such as those found in sunscreen are widely used to the point that they reach detectable levels in seawater (see studies by Halling-Sørensen et al 1998 and Raloff 1998 for more information) . More specifically, the real culprit from sunscreen is a chemical called oxybenzone, an organic compound used in sunscreen and other skincare products for its known ability to prevent skin damage from the sun. Oxybenzone functions by absorbing UV-A and UV-B rays from the sun and becoming excited. When it returns to its ground state, it emits a longer wavelength of radiation, which decreases the amount of radiation that penetrates the skin, and therefore also reduces the amount of DNA damage to the body. Oxybenzone is found in about half of sunscreens available on the shelf, according to a 2019 study from Consumer Reports.

Not all corals are created equal- Craig Downs, a forensic ecotoxicologist, noted that juvenile corals are up to “…1000 times more sensitive to the toxic effects of a chemical than a parent.” His research indicates that chemicals from sunscreen damage corals by degrading the symbiotic relationship between the coral itself and the algae that lives inside the coral. When this algae leaves the coral or dies, the coral becomes bleached. Since juvenile corals are more susceptible to chemical damage, he expects that we will see a slow decline in reefs over time in areas affected by sunscreen pollution, because new corals will not be able to grow in the toxic environment, and the parents will age and die off.

But what about protecting skin?

The recent sunscreen debates have sparked some public confusion over sunscreen usage. Oxybenzone is widely used because it is simultaneously effective at blocking UV rays while remaining relatively non-toxic to users. This creates a difficult line between the need for both skin protection and also environmental protection. Hawaii is in a bind because they are in close proximity to reefs, but they also need to protect their citizens from melanoma, which occurs at a rate 30% higher than the national average in the state. Thankfully, there are alternatives to oxybenzone sunscreens for your next outdoor adventure. 

What can you do?

The oxybenzone sunscreen bans in Hawaii and Florida are intended to go into effect in a few months, in January 2021. There are several ways that you can help reefs (and your own health!) by planning a little more carefully for your next beach trip rather than grabbing a bottle of sunscreen at the store on your way there.  

  1. Reef safe sunscreens: by steering clear of sunscreens containing chemicals known to harm corals, you can still lather up when necessary. This article goes over some of the chemicals to avoid and recommends 15 sunscreens you can try out to mediate your environmental impact. You could also forego the chemicals and try out a more natural mineral sunscreen. 

  2. Sun protecting clothing: cover what you can by wearing long sleeves and pants whenever possible. Adding a hat and sunglasses will further your protection. If you’re worried about overheating, check out this article that actually shows that lightweight clothing with more coverage keeps you cooler than low coverage clothing when it’s sunny. Only sunscreen areas of your skin that cannot be covered to minimize how much you use. 

  3. Stay in the shade: no equipment required for this one! By staying in the shade, you can drastically reduce your need for sunscreen and therefore protect your skin from damaging rays (and, beat the heat while you’re at it).

Next time you’re planning a beach day, a little extra preparation for your sun protection will help you do your part to keep reefs healthy. 

Please contact the author with any questions:

References found in-text and the Featured Image is courtesy of the Orlando Weekly.


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