Sunscreen Culture Impinges on Marine Ecosystems and Human Hormones

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Sunscreen Culture Impinges on Marine Ecosystems and Human Hormones

Coral reef in Hawaii / Photo by 123RF


In order to safeguard against further pollution of marine environments in the state’s waters, Hawaii just passed a bill that outright bans any sunscreens that contain octinoxate, oxybenzone or both. A preponderance of research has verified that these substances significantly harm ecosystems in which people’s bodies carry them into the waters. This makes Hawaii the first state to ban sunscreens on this basis, but they’re trying to protect their coral reefs, which is more than a notion in the age of global warming. As other countries, chiefly Australia, are also reacting to the emergency that is preserving our coral reefs, Hawaii’s ban not only has environmentalists talking but also dermatologists.

The grim reality of global warming’s effects is that coral reefs are disappearing rather rapidly right now, and there are large, interdisciplinary projects being undertaken all over the world by various institutions to help save the Great Barrier Reef in Australia and others. The bleaching of corals is one of the global warming effects that gets exacerbated by a broad number of things, two of which are the chemicals found in many sunscreen products. Research shows that as much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen find their way to coral reefs annually with octinoxate and oxybenzone as the most common ingredients in them.



According to the bill Hawaii just passed, oxybenzone and octinoxate “have significant harmful impacts on Hawaii’s marine environment and residing ecosystems. These chemicals have been found in high quantities at reef areas and beaches — Waikiki Beach, Honolua Bay, Waimea Bay, Ahihi-Kinau and Hanauma Bay. A study published in Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology back in 2015 found the substances to have more than one effect on coral. They could yield bleaching but also death and even genetic damage. The latter can even extend to other living organisms that interact with said coral.

The same study found the two substances to be capable of inducing gender confusion on adult, male fish and raising reproductive diseases among marine animals. There are also neurological implications that have proven troubling, such as behavioral changes in fish and in many endangered species throughout Hawaii. In the study, oxybenzone was found to bear toxicity starting at a concentration of 62 parts per trillion, which is about a single drop of oxybenzone in a pool six-and-a-half times larger than Olympic swimming pools. “This is the first real chance that local reefs have to recover,” according to Craig Downs.

Downs led the 2015 study, which broke ground in this line of research. “Lots of things kill coral reefs but we know oxybenzone prevents them from coming back.” The bill’s critics, however, claim that this is only one of a plethora of factors impinging upon coral reef health and the welfare of coral ecosystems. They take offense to the idea that this bill suffices in itself and that the state legislature would suggest that this bill gives coral reefs a genuine chance to recover. To them, it smacks of resting on their unimpressive laurels. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, land-based pollution and unsustainable fishing are two top threats besides global warming for corals, and of course, sunscreen chemicals only account for making corals more vulnerable to global warming’s effects.


A diver checking a sea turtle / Photo by 123RF


“We’ve been raising the concerns about the use of oxybenzone in sunscreens for probably at least 10 years,” says Environmental Working Group senior scientist David Andrews. Oxybenzone’s been found in almost all American blood samples according to his advocacy group. In fact, Andrews recounts one example wherein the oxybenzone levels in adolescent boys yielded a decline in testosterone. Octinoxate is considered to possibly merit the same concerns as oxybenzone, and the advocacy group goes as far as to warn people to simply avoid sunscreen as best they can. More research needs to be conducted with a focus on Octinoxate, and Andrews concedes that data from these studies are inconclusive; however, “We think it raises enough concern that it should be avoided.”

Sunscreens aren’t inherently the enemy, though. “We do think there are alternative sunscreens available that will avoid this concerning ingredient,” Andrews adds. Some on the market actually rely on minerals and are perfect for those who want to avoid these chemicals, but they are of the rare ilk of sunscreen that doesn’t contain said chemicals. They also represent a narrow niche of the market that is likely to see share values soar as people gradually and then en masse start curbing their use of the currently most popular brands of sunscreen. “Science has shown that UV absorbers (chemical actives) cause unnecessary harm to human and aquatic systems,” says Caroline Duell, founder and CEO of All Good.

“They are known toxins with studies that have revealed the development of cancer, endocrine and reproductive disruption and DNA mutation. To achieve optimal effectiveness with sunscreens, non-nanoparticle zinc oxide is the best option. It is an FDA-approved active mineral ingredient, and on its own, it provides safe broad spectrum UVA/UVB protection.”



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