Updated: May 5
When I first heard my college professor say that the number one most commonly used active ingredient in sunscreen negatively affects marine life, I was horrified. The first thing I did when I left class, was research how these chemicals interact with marine and human life. What I found was so moving, which is why Current All Natural started off as a platform to spread environmental awareness.
I wanted people to question the ingredients in the products they use on their bodies. Products that contain harmful chemicals, which can alter DNA, change hormone levels, & cause cancer. Products that also wash down the drain, contaminate our water systems, and harm marine life. My goal with Current All Natural has always been to show people that health and beauty are not at odds with environmental sustainability. I've done just that by creating products designed for surfers and water enthusiasts, that are made with nature’s highest quality ingredients, that are good for your body and the planet, and actually work!
Coral reefs are suffering and your sunscreen may be part of the problem.
Let me start off with some facts. Every year it is estimated that 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the ocean. Over 82,000 chemicals in personal care and cosmetic products are possibly harmful to marine ecosystem! We also know that 80% of coral reefs in The Caribbean have been lost in the last 50 years! These statistics in combination are terrifying... here's why:
Coral reefs are possibly the most valuable (& beautiful) ecosystem on Earth. They provide coastal towns with economic and environmental benefits such as eco-tourism and shoreline protection. In addition to that, fishing in these ecosystems provides the globe with food. Coral ecosystems are facing threats from every direction, climate change, coastal development, pollution, and invasive species. The last thing we need to do is add another thing to that list... but here we are.
How does sunscreen work?
Before we get into the environmental impacts from sunscreen, let me explain to you how sunscreen works. The sunscreen industry has evolved over the years and has been effective at lowering skin cancer rates. So you might ask what's the problem?
Sunlight is made up of ultraviolet (UV) light photons that can be harmful to our skin. The two types of UV light that humans need to worry about are UVA (wavelength of 320-400 nm) and UVB (wavelength of 280–320 nm). UVA rays penetrate into the skin, deep into the dermis, and degrades collagen. This leads to many of the aging affects associated with sun exposure. UVB rays do not penetrate past the epidermis and they are responsible for sunburns. Most UV filters only protect against one or the other, UVA or UVB rays. A sun protectant that works for both will be labeled as full spectrum. There are two categories of sun protectants, chemical and physical.
The UV filters in Chemical sunSCREEN work by absorbing UV rays. In order to do this, they must first be absorbed through your skin. This is why sunscreen labels say to apply twenty minutes before being in the sun! Most chemical sunscreens do not protect against UVA rays. Avobenzone is the only approved chemical UV filter in the US that protects against UVA rays. Therefor, in order to reach full spectrum protection two to six different UV filters are usually used. Your skin is the largest organ in your body; it is also very permeable. Whatever products you put on your skin will be absorbed through and enter your bloodstream.
Physical sunBLOCK works by creating a physical barrier between your skin and the sun. These are also called mineral sunblocks and limited to, zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. Physical sunblocks are usually considered safer for human health and they work immediately by reflecting the harmful UV rays. Titanium dioxide only works against UVB rays, but zinc oxide is full spectrum. Both titanium dioxide and zinc oxide can be used in either their "nano" form or their "non-nano" form. This is determined by the particle size of the mineral. Minerals in their nano form are smaller than your pore size and are easily absorbed into your skin. Whereas, non-nano particles are larger than your pores and therefore, cannot enter your bloodstream. Non-nano particles usually create a thick and chalky white product. Because of this, manufacturers prefer to use nanoparticles because they blend easier and can be more transparent on skin. Research is unclear if nanoparticles cause negative health effects, but they do enter your bloodstream. Check out this article if you want to learn more about how sunscreen works.
What about SPF?
SPF was designed for chemical UV filters and only accounts for UVB protection. In theory, it is determined by the relative time it will take an individual to burn when used correctly. However, SPF can be very misleading. Properly applied SPF 50 protects against 98% of UVB rays, whereas SPF 100 protects against 99%. People often wrongly assume if you double the SPF, you double the protection. If you are interested in learning more about SPF check out the Environmental Working Group's (EWG) Sunscreen Guide.
While the benefits of wearing sunscreen are clear (protects from skin cancer and painful sunburns), many of the ingredients have negative human health effects. According to the EWG, ingredients in sunscreens may increase allergies, be endocrine disruptors, speed up the development in skin tumors, and disrupt hormone levels. The EWG recommends using products that only have non-nano zinc oxide in them.
What does any of this have to do with the ocean?
When you swim or enter the water, the sunscreen you're wearing washes off directly into the water, BUT even if you do not swim, the sunscreen washes down the drain and ends up in the ocean! SO if the ingredients are harmful, they are getting into the ocean, whether you got in or not.
Actually, studies have shown, that most of the chemicals in sunscreen are getting into waterways through the sewage system. This means the majority of sunscreen pollution happens after you wash it off in the shower. Also since chemical sunscreens work by absorbing into your skin, the chemicals go through your bloodstream, are present in your urine, and get flushed down the toilet!!!
Show me the data!
A 2019 review notes that concerns have been raised in the scientific community about the following chemicals found in sunscreens: oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, and 4-methylbenzylidene camphor. These chemicals have been found in waters all around the globe! The worst part of this is that these chemicals can not be easily removed by most wastewater treatment centers.
A 2008 study found that ingredients found in sunscreen promote viral infections that lead to coral bleaching.
A 2016 study led by researchers from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) found that a common active ingredient in many sunscreens, oxybenzone, is highly toxic to corals and other marine life. The study confirmed that oxybenzone negatively affects corals by inducing them to bleach at lower water temperatures. It also proved that oxybenzone is genotoxic, which means that it alters the coral's DNA and can lead to severe deformities. Oxybenzone is also an endocrine disrupter that can cause the larvae to incase itself in its own skeleton. So next time you vacation in the tropics make sure to read your sunscreen label!!
Oxybenzone, the one word that you never knew that is killing coral reefs.
What is coral bleaching?
So the biggest problem with oxybenzone and these other chemicals are that they cause coral bleaching. You might be wondering what that means. Corals have a symbiotic relationship with zooxanthellae, a microscopic algae. The zooxanthellae give corals their color and provide them with food. When corals are put through stress, like temperature changes, pH changes, or exposure to chemicals they expel the zooxanthellae. Once the zooxanthellae are gone, the coral is left very vulnerable and has a white color. Corals are not dead upon bleaching, but they become extremely vulnerable and have a higher risk of mortality. This graphic below from NOAA further explains coral bleaching.
Wait so if bleaching does not kill coral, why do we care?
While bleaching does not automatically kill coral, it increases the likelihood that they will die. Once corals die, the reefs rarely come back. When majority of corals die in an area, the reproduction rate is not high enough to get the reef back to its prior state. This has cascading ecosystem and economic implications. According to NOAA, between 2014 and 2017, an unprecedented global ocean heat wave occurred. More than 75% of Earth's reefs experienced bleaching events during this time. In total 30% of the globe's corals died over this 36 month period. As climate change continues, this heat waves will become the norm. As previously mentioned, oxybenzone hurts reefs by causing them to bleach at lower than normal temperatures. Basically, climate change will cause bleaching events no matter what, but with large quantities of oxybenzone in the water, corals are even less resilient to these temperature changes.
Do the chemicals in sunscreen hurt other marine life?
The most extensive research on sunscreen ingredients has been done on their effects on coral reefs. However, this graphic, which was provided by NOAA, shows they can affect green algae, mussels, dolphins, fish, and sea urchins as well. Oxybenzone can inhibit embryonic development in sea urchins. It also affects many fish species; it can result in male fish taking on female attributes. It also has effects on marine mammals, similar to the ones mentioned earlier about human health.
What's been done?
On the heels of the massive coral bleaching event from 2014 to 2017, Hawaii passed S.B. 2571. On May 1, 2018 Hawaii banned the sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.
This is a massive step since Hawaii is one of the most traveled to destinations in the world. Companies will be required to make new products that do not include oxybenzone and octinoxate if they would like to sell in the state. If sunblock companies do not comply with these changes, then they will lose their spot on Hawaiian shelves. Hopefully there will be a spillover effect and the companies will phase out these ingredients completely.
The new rules do not officially go into effect on January 21, 2021, but Hawaiian companies and citizens are already spreading awareness. This PSA video was created by Hawaiian Airlines. The Airline also gives free samples of reef safe sunscreen on flights.
One of the largest drawbacks of the legislation is that it only focuses on two ingredients. Many fear that companies will simply replace oxybenzone and octinoxate with new chemicals that have not been extensively studied on their effect on corals. Companies now label their products as "reef safe" because they do not have oxybenzone and octinoxate, but still contain avobenzone or octisalate-- which are basically their chemical cousins. The only true reef safe sunscreen ingredient is non nano zinc oxide.
Hawaiian officials understand that banning oxybenzone and octinoxate is not enough to save their beautiful reefs. There are two recently proposed bills, Senate Bill 2278 and House Bill 2248, that would impose further restrictions on sunblock sales in the state. The bills propose to ban 14 ingredients, many of which were used to replace oxybenzone and octinoxate. The only ingredients the new bills would allow for are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. This is a necessary step the state should take that would revolutionize the sunscreen industry.
After Hawaii passed their ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate, the Florida Keys and US Virgin Islands followed suit. The US Virgin Islands banned the sale, importation, and distribution of octinoxate, oxybenzone, and octocrylene, effective March 30 2020! Anyone caught using, selling, or possessing a product with any of these ingredients will be fined $1,000.
Similarly, the ban in the Florida Keys, which prohibits oxybenzone and octinoxate, is set to go into effect January 1, 2021.
What can you do?
Generally, ingredients that are bad for your body are also bad for the environment. I recommend using the EWG's Skin Deep App to check the safety of ingredients in the products that you use. When buying sunblock make sure that the only active ingredient is non-nano zinc oxide, like Current All Natural's Zinc Surf Paste.