The Damage of Sunscreen
Save your skin, ruin the planet? Yep, that’s the unfortunate reality of using most sunscreens. Research shows that 90 per cent of sunscreens are harming the environment, especially when it comes to our oceans. Common sunscreen ingredients are oxybenzone and octinoxate and both are lethal to living coral. Coral is extremely sensitive to pollution and while eco-marine reserves do their best to protect, it’s a near impossible task to both stop water pollution from spreading. To give an idea of how easy toxicity occurs, all it takes is about one drop of these chemicals in the equivalent to a six Olympic-sized swimming pools. And, guess what, researchers estimate 14,000 tons of sunscreen get into our oceans every year.
Oxybenzone (also called benzophenone-3 and BP-3) acts as a genotoxicant for coral. This means it causes destructive mutations to occur. The chemical also leads to coral bleaching which is what happens when the symbiotic algae that lives in coral (and gives it those radiant colours) dies off. It’s not just sunbathers and snorkelers doing the pollution – it’s anybody who wears sunscreen. You shower and the chemicals are rinsed into the drain, along with dirt and grime, finding its way into rivers and, then, the ocean.
Peggy Orenstein wrote her observations in a 2017 New York Times piece of how much the underwater life has changed during three decades of visiting the same beach on the Big Island of Hawaii. She was so interested in the sea life she discovered, she bought books to identify the creatures. She even kept lists of what she’d found on each trip.
“At first I thought it was my imagination, but this summer there was no denying it: I felt, abruptly, like I was snorkeling through an underwater desert," Orenstein wrote. "Most of the coral had turned white, a sign that it was in danger of dying. Entire species of fish had vanished, and those that remained — like Hawaii’s tongue-twisting state fish, the humuhumunukunukuapua’a — were sparse, barely a classroom’s worth, let alone a school.”
But you can help. There are sunscreens available that offer protection, but with basic ingredients that are ecofriendly. We can suggest one called Raw Elements, designed by an ocean lifeguard who was horrified by the effects of harmful chemical sunscreens.
We can all do our part. It doesn't take much.