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The Gap Year Blog

Eco-Friendly Sunscreen - Why it Matters

13 Jun 2018 10:35 AM

Photo credit: Flickr | Sunny Ripert

Adapted with permission by Frontier

Last month Hawaii passed a bill banning certain types of sunscreen which are harmful to marine life. In this article we look at why the ban marks such a significant step in the direction of environmental protection, and why we should all be opting for eco-friendly sunscreen.

If the bill is signed by Governor David Ige, products containing either of the chemicals oxybenzone or octinoxate – the main active ingredients used by thousands of sun cream brands – will be banned from the island state by 2021. The government’s position is that both chemicals “have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii's marine environment and residing ecosystems, including coral reefs that protect Hawaii's shoreline.” The ban will be the first of its kind in the world.

So just how bad are these ingredients? 

One study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology in 2015 found evidence that oxybenzone can increase coral bleaching as well as damage planulae (the larval form of coral). Another paper from 2017 found that the ingredient can also cause male fish to be ‘feminised’ – since the chemical makeup of oxybenzone is similar to that of oestrogen, it can mimic the hormone and affect the reproductive capabilities of male fish when ingested. Octinoxate has been found to disrupt hormones in fish as well, with one study showing that exposure to the chemical caused male fish to produce egg proteins. It can also damage DNA, cause liver defects and create deformities, as well as contributing to coral bleaching like oxybenzone. 

These effects are not just damaging in themselves; they can also have knock-on results across marine ecosystems. When coral is bleached there is a risk that it will die altogether – and as we lose more and more of the world’s reefs this will impact the entire oceanic food chain; and eventually us too. 

Bleached coral - photo credit: Wikipedia | Acropora  

Responses to the ban

Although supported by many environmentalists, the Hawaiian bill has also drawn criticism from others. Some have made the point that there are numerous other factors which are causing damage to coral reefs and marine life generally; such as global warming and overfishing, and we should be focusing our efforts on mitigating these effects instead. Indeed climate change is frequently cited as one of the biggest causes of coral bleaching – since rising sea temperatures put the coral under stress. 

However it seems short-sighted to suggest that we can only address one environmental hazard at a time. The science shows that the chemicals in sunscreen do have a negative impact on marine ecosystems, and this is further supported by the fact that coral bleaching has been worse in areas with high levels of tourism – such as the Great Barrier Reef as well as along Hawaii’s coastline. Although there may be other touristic activities which could explain this trend, this coupled with the evidence from the studies mentioned above suggests that coral damage could be worse in these areas due to there being a higher concentration of sun cream residue in the water. And according to forensic ecotoxicologist Craig Downs, these chemicals exacerbate the other threats faced by corals – “lots of things kill coral reefs but we know oxybenzone prevents them from coming back.” 

Furthermore, it has been shown that the concentration level of these chemicals that is sufficient to cause these effects is very low – only 62 parts of oxybenzone per trillion parts of water which is “equivalent to one drop in six-and-a-half Olympic-size swimming pools.” We would therefore be mistaken to believe that ‘just a bit of residue’ of sun cream washing off our bodies and into the oceans is totally harmless, as opposed to other ‘bigger’ problems such as climate change. 

Photo credit: Pixabay | Pexels 

Eco-friendly alternatives 

Another criticism of the eco-friendly sunscreen bill is that there aren’t many other alternatives which provide effective UV protection. Henry Lim, the previous president of the American Academy of Dermatology Association says – "it is quite difficult to make good sunscreens that do not contain these chemicals based on the currently approved sunscreen active ingredients list in the U.S." However, whilst the FDA does have a fairly narrow list of ingredients which it deems to be effective at UV protection, the situation is different in Europe. There are many brands over here creating eco-friendly or ‘reef-safe’ sunscreens which use alternative active ingredients such as the natural minerals titanium dioxide or zinc oxide – both of which have been approved by the European Commission as effective UV filters. 

It is important to note, however, that caution must be exercised even with regard to these natural, mineral-based formulas. When titanium dioxide comes in the form of nano-particles, it has been shown to be harmful to marine life as well – specifically to phytoplankton; tiny organisms which support a vast amount of the oceanic ecosystem and food-chain. It has become increasingly popular amongst cosmetic companies to use the mineral in its nano form since it provides even better UV protection, and also leaves less of a chalky mark on the skin; but in light of the evidence that this formulation could pose a serious problem to marine life it is best to stick to using products which use non-nano forms of these minerals. The problem is, manufacturers are not currently required to state the size of the mineral particles which they use, making it difficult to know which products are truly eco-friendly. To this end, it’s best to look for brands which specifically declare that their minerals are in non-nano form, such as Stream2Sea. There are also other companies out there using alternative UV-protective ingredients altogether, such as Aethic which employs a natural compound found in seaweed, which has been tested at King’s College London and found to absorb both UVA and UVB rays.

In conclusion, we should all be opting for eco-friendly sunscreen in order to protect our oceans. Although there are options currently on the market which allow us to do this, it does also seem that more needs to be done on a regulatory scale to classify which mineral-based products avoid using nano particles and are therefore safe for the environment. And at the same time, bans such as the one introduced by the Hawaiian government should hopefully apply pressure to cosmetic brands to continue developing more eco-friendly sunscreen solutions.

By Tess Hanneman - Marketing Assistant

Frontier runs terrestrial & marine conservation, community, teaching and adventure projects in over 50 countries - join us and explore the world!