Sunbathing in Vondelpark (Elhawk, 2010)
Finally, the sun was out in Amsterdam last weekend, reaching temperatures of around 27 degrees. In a summer dress, shorts, or bikini, on the terrace, in the park, or at the beach, the sun was enjoyed through all kinds of different activities. The spring sun is more treacherous as you might think, so I hope, whatever you were doing, you protected yourself with sunscreen. Because we all know right, sunbathing unprotected is highly increasing your chances of skin cancer. Unfortunately, although sunscreen is good for you, it might not be as good for the environment. Last week, I came across an article saying that sunscreen could be damaging the environment (Mcmahon, 2018). The article states that sunscreen in the water is leading to coral bleaching and harming marine life. Not again a human-induced pressure on the environment! So let’s figure out why sunscreen is harming the environment, whether the effect is significant and what we can do about it.
The cause of the problem
The main ingredient in sunscreen that is protecting us against ultraviolet radiation is called oxybenzone (Bronstein, 2016). This chemical is also used in other personal-care products, such as perfumes, shampoo, facial creams, and mascara, as well as in household products such as dishwasher soap and hand soap. Exactly this ingredient is becoming of increased concern for the environment. When we go for a swim in the sea, part of our sunscreen is released into the water and subsequently harms the environment. Tashiro and Kameda (2013) showed that our sunscreen can travel distances of approximately 600 m through the water from its point of emission. Bronstein et al. (2016) found that approximately 6000 till 14000 tons of sunscreen annually ends up in areas where coral reef is present. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency also discovered the presence of oxybenzone in our residential and municipal waste water effluent, which later ends up in our natural waters. So not only by swimming, but also through for example showering or bathing after walking in the city for a day, you release this toxin into the environment.
What does it do?
Oxybenzone is toxic on molecular levels all the way up to multi-organ system levels. Oxybenzones are mutagens known to induce damage to DNA. Their effect is enhanced in the presence of sunlight and varies amongst different marine species and coral reefs. Coral larvae and juvenile coral are most vulnerable to the impact. The chemical often interferes with reproduction and growth and aggravates coral bleaching (Bronstein et al., 2016). Bronstein et al. (2016) investigated various beaches over the world, under which two bays at St. John Island. Trunk Bay, which has many recreational swimmers and therefore detectable levels of oxybenzone, was compared with Caneel Bay, which is a quiet bay. According to their expectations, Caneel Bay had a healthy coral community with abundant coral larvae and juvenile coral, while almost no regeneration of coral reefs had taken place over an observation period of 5 years at Trunk Bay. The same trend was observed in areas all over the world, such as Eilat, Aqaba, Hawaii, and Cancun, and is thus of serious concern. In combination with various other stress factors, such as ocean acidification and microplastics, sunscreen emissions highly threaten coral reef resilience. Coral bleaching as a consequence of ocean acidification has received significant attention over the past few years. The effects of sunscreen lotion on coral reefs are far less published. As sunscreen usage is much easier to alter than ocean acidification, this problem definitely needs more attention.
The value of coral reef
Why do we worry so much about coral bleaching? Coral reefs deliver a positive contribution to tourism, fisheries, coastal protection, biodiversity and carbon sequestration. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has put a monetary value on coral reefs and estimated the total value of all coral reef globally per year to be 29.8 billion. Tourism and recreation accounted for the greatest share, namely 9.6 billion dollars, coastal protection was found to be worth 9 billion dollars, fisheries 5.7 billion dollars and biodiversity 5.5 billion dollars (Conservation International, 2008).
Coral reefs are an important tourist attraction for islands like Hawaii, the Caribbean and the Philippines. Therefore, initiatives are popping up to protect coral reefs against sunscreen. The Hawaiian senator, for instance, proposed a bill to ban the sales of all oxybenzone containing sunblock at the island, but this bill has yet to be passed (Vesper, 2017). Brands such a L’Oréal, have been denying the research and also lobbyist groups such as the DC-based Consumer Healthcare Products Association have been fighting against the ban. They argued that there is a lack of scientific evidence (Vesper, 2017). There are also some bottom-up initiatives that try to stimulate use of reef-safe sun protection. The Aqua-Aston Hospitality, a large hotel and resorts group in Hawaii, distributes free and harmless sunblock. Additionally, they have introduced free sunblock stations on its property. These initiative have stimulated others to take action as well, such as the Waikiki Aquarium, who also installed sunscreen stations and are educating people in various hotels to increase public awareness about the issue (Gonzalez, 2018).
I believe its the collective responsibility of all humans to protect coral reefs and put pressure on legislators and manufacturers to ban the use of oxybenzone in sunblock. We should take these small bottom-up initiative as example and, therefore, I hope to have encouraged you all to check the ingredients next time you buy sunscreen. Rather than denying the research, like L’Oréal, a few brands took a different approach and have been producing sunscreen lotions that are coral-reef friendly by using alternatives for oxybenzone. But, be aware, scientists found that some of these seemingly reef-safe lotions still contain oxybenzone. Thus, similarly as we have to watch out for many food products that print superficial claims on their packaging, such as ‘natural’ or ‘sustainable’, also sunscreen is prone to green washing!
Bronstein, O., Cadenas, K., Ciner, F.R., Downs, C.A., Fauth, J., Jeger, R., ….. Woodley, C.M.
(2016). Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter,Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol, 70,265-288. Doi: 10.1007/s00244-015-0227-7
Conservation International. 2008. Economic Values of Coral Reefs, Mangroves, and
Seagrasses. A Global Compilation. Center for Applied Biodiversity Science, Conservation International, Arlington, VA, USA.
Gonzalez, M. (2018, April 3). Hotel gives out environmental friendly sunscreen to protect Hawaii’s coral reefs. KITV4. Retrieved from: http://www.kitv.com/story/37864874/hotel-gives-out-environmental-friendly- sunscreen-to-protect-hawaiis-coral-reefs
Mcmahon, S. (2018, April 19). What Your Sunscreen Is Doing to the Environment. Smarter
Travel. Retrieved from: https://www.smartertravel.com/2018/04/19/what-sunscreen-does-to-the-environment/
Tashiro, Y., Kameda, Y. (2013). Concentration of organic sun-blocking agents in seawater of beaches and coral reefs of Okinawa Island, Japan. Marine Pollution Bull, 77, 333–340
Vesper, I. (2017, February 3). Hawaii seeks to ban ‘reef-unfriendly’ sunscreen. Nature. Retrieved from: https://www.nature.com/news/hawaii-seeks-to-ban-reef-unfriendly-sunscreen-1.21332#/ref-link-2
Elhawk. (Photographer) (2010, June 24). Sunbathing in Vondelpark [digital image]. Retrieved from: https://www.flickr.com/photos/elhawk/4829891421