The world’s coral reefs are under threat. It is estimated that by 2050, 90% of reefs will die due to rising temperatures, with climate change the biggest threat to coral reefs. Overfishing, pollution & nutrient enrichment from agricultural runoff & sewage are also considered significant threats to coral reef health. However, over the last few years scientists have been bringing their attention to the raising threat of chemical sunscreen products to marine life.
Chemical sunscreens use chemical ingredients to absorb & dissipate UV rays. Two chemical UV-filters in particular, oxybenzone & octinoxate, are under scrutiny. Research published in 2015, showed that oxybenzone was particularly damaging to juvenile coral & could make coral more susceptible to bleaching. Up to 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen lotion ends up in coral reefs per year. Oxybenzone pollution predominantly occurs in swimming areas, coming from swimmers & divers, but it can occur on reefs, 5 to 20 miles from the coastline due to sewage.
Oxybenzone has been shown to cause corals to bleach at lower temperatures, reducing their resilience to climate change. When bleaching occurs in the presence of oxybenzone the corals are not able to recover. The effect of oxybenzone on the DNA of corals means they are not able to reproduce correctly, leading to declines in coral populations, & juvenile coral deformities. Juvenile coral is particularly susceptible to the endocrine disruptor effects of oxybenzone.
The study also found that both chemicals can have negative effects on other marine life, not just coral. The chemicals were shown to induce feminisation in adult male fish & increase reproductive diseases in a wide variety of marine creatures from echinoderms, to fish & mammals. Some induced changes in neurological behaviours of fish have also been attributed to these chemicals.
The toxic effect of oxybenzone was considered environmentally relevant in the study. It was found that toxicity from oxybenzone could be caused at as low a concentration as 62 parts per trillion. That is the equivalent of one drop in six-and-a-half Olympic-size swimming pools. When the concentrations of oxybenzone on coral reef areas in Hawaii were examined, they were found to be in the range of 800 parts per trillion to 19 parts per billion, posing a significant ecological threat.
Hawaii implemented the world’s first ban on chemical sunscreens containing the chemicals oxybenzone & octinoxate in May 2018, with the ban coming into effect on January 1, 2021. Other regions, like the island of Bonaire in the Caribbean, nature reserves in Mexico & south Florida, are also taking measures to encourage visitors to use the more environmentally friendly mineral sunscreens.
The first country to impose an extensive country-wide ban on chemical sunscreens, however, will be the Pacific island nation of Palau. As of January 2020, it will be illegal to sell or import sunscreens & skincare products containing any of ten chemicals including,
that the country considers to be harmful to coral reefs. The ban will see fines of $1,000 for importers or vendors who violate the law & any products found with the prohibited ingredients will be confiscated. There will also be a law that will specifically address travellers from outside the country bringing it in.
The Hawaii bill, which will see at least 70% of sunscreens currently on the market banned, came under criticism from opposers. They called it a “feel-good measure”, claiming the environmental benefits will be minimal compared to the effect sun exposure without protection will have on Hawaiians & tourists. However, Dr. Craig Downs, the lead author of the 2015 study, said “Lots of things kill coral reefs but we know oxybenzone prevents them from coming back.” Banning these chemicals will give the reefs a chance to recover & be better able to fight off other threats.
Many travel companies supported the ban, finding an opportunity to collaborate with sunscreen makers & promote reef safe sunscreens. In April 2018, Hawaiian Airlines partnered with RAW Elements USA, to offer complimentary samples of its reef safe sunscreens to its passengers. The Waikiki Aquarium & hotel group Aqua-Aston also offered visitors eco-friendly sunscreens.
While many sunscreens claim to be “reef-safe”, some of those brands contain UV filters that have previously been shown to be toxic to marine life. The most promising UV filters for the health of marine life appear to be mineral filters ZnO & TiO2. Entekno’s innovative MicNo technology with a unique morphology/structure offers incomparable UV protection, but also offers a much greater biocompatibility making it a much kinder sunscreen for the environment when compared to currently available UV filters. Coupled with the superior UV-protection afforded by high SPF formulations containing MicNo, the MicNo technology protects both the environment & human health.
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