While we know not to touch or step on corals when snorkeling and diving, the lasting effect of the estimated 6,000 to 14,000 tons of sunscreen washing off in the ocean every year is something less talked about and perhaps top of mind.
If chemical sunscreens are deadly to coral reefs and other marine life, can you imagine what it is doing to your body?
Certain sunscreen ingredients are harmful to coral reefs
Out of the 16 FDA approved active sunscreen ingredients, there are two common active ingredients (oxybenzone and octinoxate) that Craig Downs and colleagues at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory have found contribute to coral bleaching when washed off in the ocean. Downs explains that oxybenzone acts as an endocrine disruptor and damages coral DNA, sometimes causing corals to look “healthy but are actually sterile and dead—so they cannot reproduce.”
Once corals die, the reefs crumble to dust. At the present pollution rates, scientists expect 98% of reefs will be exposed to potentially fatal conditions every year. The world economic forum organization states that “It’s possible that coral reefs around the world could be mostly wiped out by 2050 or soon after.” The absence of coral reefs and lack of marine diversity can have rippling effects that cause a much broader collapse.
Without the coral reef, the coastal areas are at risk for severe property damage from natural disasters and normal wave activity
Without the coral reef, the coastal areas are at risk for severe property damage from natural disasters and normal wave activity. And as a major point of interest, the loss of coral life can lose tourism appeal and jeopardize tourism revenue that fuels the local economy. For example, it is the coral reef that gives the Mexican Caribbean its famous blue hues. Tourism will likely decrease if it loses the beauty it is famous for, jeopardizing the livelihoods of millions of people who work in the industry. The loss of coral life also leads to the deaths of fish species, creating a deficit in marine life — essential for food, medicine, security, economic development, and poverty alleviation.
Downs’ 2016 study was the catalyst for Hawaii to legally ban oxybenzone and octinoxate in efforts to reduce coral reef damage. Hawaii has taken the first steps to protect its marine ecosystem sparking a conversation we should all be aware of. As consumers and mindful travelers, we have the opportunity to opt for a biodegradable sunscreen that will (hopefully) not cause damage to marine life in Hawaii or any other part of the world we visit.
If these chemical UV substances can damage coral DNA, is it possible they can also disrupt human endocrine systems (human sex or thyroid hormones)?
The Environmental Working Group (EWG), a non-profit research and advocacy group that helps consumers find cosmetics free from dangerous chemicals, has researched sunscreen chemicals over the course of 12 years. They have found evidence that oxybenzone is also harmful to human health.
According to their 12th Annual Sunscreen Guide, oxybenzone “is an allergen and a hormone disruptor that soaks through the skin and is measured in the body of nearly every American.” It has been associated with a higher risk of endometriosis in women, decreased sperm quality in men, skin allergies, hormone disruption, and cell damage.
As of February 21, 2019, the agency has determined that of the 16 active sunscreen ingredients:
- 2 of those ingredients (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) are safe to use.
- 2 of those ingredients (PABA and trolamine salicylate) are no longer deemed safe to use.
- 12 of them are still under review as the agency seeks additional scientific data to evaluate the safety and effectiveness based on current information.
The FDA also proposed to require broad-spectrum protection (UVA and UVB rays protection) for sunscreens advertised with an SPF value of 15 or higher. The agency believes that as the SPF increases, the magnitude of protection against UVA radiation should also increase — a concern that isn’t certified by most sunscreen brands.
What’s the difference between chemical-based vs. mineral-based active ingredients?
A chemical sunscreen typically includes oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone and PABA as ingredients that absorb and dissipate UV rays. These chemicals block UVB rays that burn the top layer of the skin but since they absorb the rays, it allows UVA rays to reach deeper skin layers and cause damage.
Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide to form an actual physical barrier, which is often why they leave a white cast on the skin. These mineral blockers reflect off both UVA and UVB rays to provide broad-spectrum protection.
How to choose a sunscreen?
Choose a lotion instead of a spray. The EWG recommends looking for sunscreens with active ingredients of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide because:
- They provide strong sun protection with few health concerns.
- They don’t break down in the sun.
- Zinc oxide offers good protection from UVA rays. Titanium oxide’s protection isn’t as strong, but it’s better than most other active ingredients.
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