The secret life of sunscreen | Green

The blazing rays of the tropical sun can take a heavy toll on your skin — which is why most beachgoers and swimmers in the Caribbean slather on a layer of protective sunscreen before they disrobe. But the very chemicals that protect human skin can be toxic for corals — and the Caribbean’s reefs pay the price. Erline Andrews investigates

  • Photo by photopixel/Shutterstock.com

Fragments of Hope is an award-winning nonprofit in Belize, committed to saving coral reefs decimated by climate change, pollution, and other phenomena related to human activity. On the group’s regularly updated Facebook page, there are photos of volunteers and researchers chest-deep in clear Belizean sea water going about the work of creating coral nurseries, where they raise young coral on small plates to later be transplanted to areas that need replenishing.

The men and women are dressed in long-sleeved tops and in caps or hats with brims so wide that their faces are obscured. One volunteer’s face is covered except for the eyes with a bandana, and another wears what looks like a beekeeper’s mask.

What might seem like strange attire for time spent in the sun and sea is explained in captions above two photographs. “No sunscreen allowed, thus our big hats,” is the text above one photo. “Covered up from the sun, no sunscreen allowed!” is written above another.

If you want to find out why sunscreen should alarm people concerned about coral reefs, the Fragments of Hope Facebook page is a good place to start. In multiple posts, the NGO shares information about studies that have found the widespread use of sunscreen by swimmers, divers, and other people who enter the sea is having a detrimental impact on marine life, particularly corals.

A study conducted by a team of researchers from the National Centres for Coastal Ocean Science and published in the 13 December, 2013, issue of the journal Ecotoxicology found that the chemical ingredient in most sunscreens that protects consumers from ultraviolet light also kills young corals, and contributes to coral bleaching: it causes them to lose the coating of algae that gives them protection and their vibrant colour. The chemical contaminates the marine environment not only through people entering the sea but indirectly through users washing it off in the shower — that water eventually reaches the sea through the sewer system. “Please read and share widely! And buy your lycra skins and big hats!” is the exhortation from Fragments of Hope above the link to the study.

When Hawaii moved to ban products with oxybenzone and two similar sunscreen chemicals earlier this year, Fragments of Hope posted the news along with the message, “maybe Belize can be next.” The organisation has shared a link to the short film Reef at Risk, a compelling look at the issue from a team of Hawaiian filmmakers, and even screened the film at primary schools in Belize as part of an outreach programme. “We are surprised how many people are still unaware of the issues relating to sunscreen and coral reefs,” says Monique Vernon, Fragments of Hope’s outreach officer. The organisation is working with the Belize Tourism Board to educate tour operators about the issue — in turn, they hope the operators will help educate their clients.

 

There’s good reason why average Belizeans and regular visitors to the country should want to know about the harmful effects of sunscreen. The Belize Barrier Reef, one of the world’s largest, is the habitat for a wide variety of coral and fish species, and supports the country’s fishing and tourism industries.

Awareness is slowly spreading, and a number of Belizean tourism service providers now request that clients wear what’s referred to as “reef-safe” sunscreen, which uses alternatives to oxybenzone. St George’s Caye Resort, for example, offers reef-safe sunscreen for sale at their gift shop.

And the rest of the Caribbean is slowly taking steps, too. In May, Bonaire’s Island Council followed in the footsteps of Hawaii, and banned products containing oxybenzone and the similarly harmful chemical octinoxate. Scientists from Wageningen University in the Netherlands have been studying the effects of the chemicals in waters around the island.

Elsewhere in the Dutch Caribbean, Sint Maarten’s environmental NGO Nature Foundation has started urging residents and visitors to “avoid sunscreens with oxybenzone, use sunscreens with a combination of zinc and titanium, use lotions not sprays, apply sunscreen at least thirty minutes before entering the water, and avoid sunscreen factors above fifty,” according to a press release. The last three bits of advice help reduce the amounts of harmful sunscreen that gets into the water. “The coral reefs of Sint Maarten, especially in the Man of War Shoal Marine Protected Area, contribute significantly to the economy of Sint Maarten and all steps should be taken by the community to protect this very important resource,” the release explains.

Craig Downs, the lead researcher behind the 2013 study, has also conducted research in the Bahamas and Barbados at the request of NGOs there. He says it’s too soon to share his findings. “The Caribbean overall is slow to respond,” says Downs in an email exchange. “This is reasonable, because until someone does the science — and determines levels of UV chemicals along the coast in that country — that country will not recognise it as a problem.  

“So more groups need to do some environmental sampling and assessment,” he continues. “Many countries may not have the technical equipment or infrastructure to analyse samples, but there are commercial service companies in the US and in Europe who can do these analyses.”

Monique Vernon of Fragments of Hope shares similar sentiments. The organisation would like to see “more research into the potential hazards of sunscreen chemicals into the environment, and providing choices to alternative sunscreen use,” she says. The organisation maintains contact with Craig Downs and his team. 

“They can’t endorse ‘reef-safe’ sunscreen until those other chemicals undergo the very same research,” explains Vernon. “Until further testing can be done, we can recommend the use of protective clothing.”

So next time you see someone swimming in long sleeves and a wide-brimmed hat, it may not be a fashion choice — but an attempt to keep coral reefs uncontaminated and healthy.


Save the coral, and your skin

One 2015 estimate says that 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the world’s oceans each year — adding to the numerous other man-made substances that pollute the sea. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are the two sunscreen ingredients thought to do most damage to reefs by bleaching corals. But there are other sunscreen ingredients you should to avoid, such as titanium dioxide, which reacts in warm saltwater to create hydrogen peroxide.

So what’s the most eco-friendly sunscreen that will also save your skin from UV damage? Experts recommend zinc oxide, which some sunscreen manufacturers now offer as a reef-friendly alternative.