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Take Action - Should We Follow Hawaii and Ban Coral Damaging Sunscreen? Ah..Yes!

Author: Sandy Abram   Date Posted:2 October 2018 

Take Action - Should We Follow Hawaii and Ban Coral Damaging Sunscreen? Ah..Yes! Take Action - Should We Follow Hawaii and Ban Coral Damaging Sunscreen? Ah..Yes!

Hawaii has passed a Bill that places a ban on sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. Why, what effect do these lotions have on coral reefs, what alternatives do we have and what about our health?


It might be Spring, but before we know it, the days will start to get hotter, we’ll feel warmer and our thoughts will turn to long, lazy days on the beach. (We can all dream, right?!) Naturally, we’ll want to avoid sunburn so we’ll probably also turn to our old faithful sunscreen sitting in the back of the bathroom cupboard. Or the one that’s on offer in the chemist.


We’re constantly told to Slip, Slap, Slop, so we duly follow this advice and assume we’re not doing anything wrong. But, like many things when we think we’re doing good, the truth is, although we might be avoiding sunburn, we’re unwittingly causing damage to the planet...


It’s thought that the common chemical ingredients added to sunscreen called oxybenzone and octinoxate are contributing to coral bleaching.


Oxy What? And I’m Putting That on My Skin?!

Oxybenzone and octinoxate might sound like they belong in a chemistry lab, but in actual fact, each time you apply a run of the mill standard sunscreen, you're applying these chemicals to your skin.


They’ve both been linked to allergies and skin irritations, and more alarmingly, they have an ability to mimic our own natural hormones. This resulting ‘endocrine disruption’ (also linked to pesticides and other farming chemicals) can lead to fertility problems, certain cancers and developmental issues.




The research is in its early stages, but at Wholesome Hub, like many of you, we’re fans of natural sunscreens that contain physical sun blockers made from minerals, rather than chemical UV filters.

More on those shortly. But our own health aside, what effects are these chemicals having on the world’s coral reefs?


Sunscreen and Coral Reefs

Applying sun protection and coral reefs have one big thing in common - the beach. We go to the beach, we apply sunscreen and we swim in the sea, where the coral lives. And it’s this action that’s the problem.


When we swim whilst wearing sunscreen, some, or all, of it, washes off. If you’ve ever noticed an oily sheen to the water that surrounds you when you’re paddling, it’s more than likely your sunscreen.




This is through swimming and showering off the residue into our drains at the end of the day.


A study published in the respected Environmental Health Perspectives journal way back in 2008 highlighted the problem. (You know how long ago it feels like Nicole Kidman and Hugh Jackman starred in the film Australia? That’s how long ago scientists first rang the sunscreen alarm bell for coral reefs.) This study concluded that “sunscreens, by promoting viral infections, potentially play an important role in coral bleaching in areas prone to high levels of recreational use by humans”.


In 2008.


This research paper linked the UV filters oxybenzone and octinoxate with the promotion of damaging viral infections within coral that leads to its bleaching. In 2015, a team working for the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia in the US also found that oxybenzone is toxic to the algae that live within coral reefs. These algae provide our coral’s beautiful colouring and act as housekeepers.




Bleaching essentially means that the important algae are killed off, turning the corals white, which reduces the biodiverse ecosystems and function of the coral, ultimately leading to its demise.


In the decade that has passed since the first study, things have been largely quiet, whilst we’ve been dutifully slopping on hormone-mimicking, skin-irritating, coral reef-bleaching, chemical sunscreens.


Alarmingly, the 2008 study said, “Because human use of tropical ecosystems and coral reef areas is progressively increasing, we predict that the impact of sunscreens on coral bleaching will grow considerably in the future on a global scale. Actions are therefore needed to stimulate the research and utilisation of UV filters that do not threaten the survival of these endangered tropical ecosystems”.




The Hawaii Sunscreen Ban - Leading the Way

So it was this evidence that lead Hawaii to become the first American state to pass a bill banning the sale of sunscreen containing these harmful ingredients. As the message will take some time to be heard, the full ban won’t come into effect until 1st January 2021. By then, all sunscreens used on the beaches of Hawaii must be ‘non-nano’. This means that the particles within the lotion must be larger than 100 nanometers, otherwise they’ll be small enough for coral to ingest.




The campaign to pass it through came up against the Consumer Healthcare Products Association and the Personal Care Products Council. The former is a trade association that represents the manufacturers of over the counter medicines, and the latter represents the cosmetic industry.


Unsurprisingly, both, who each have a vested interest in us buying sunscreen, opposed the ban before it was passed. Opposers point out that sunscreen is a vital tool in preventing skin cancer. But they’re making two assumptions here - that there is no alternative to chemical sunscreens and that we’re stupid. Reef safe sun products do exist, as do T-shirts and hats. Plus that we would just give up on sunscreen altogether upon learning the truth about these chemicals is insulting. Or perhaps they didn’t want our attention drawn to the truth?


Similar bans, but at a local rather than a governmental level, are currently being touted in the Turks & Caicos Islands, Florida, Costa Rica and Mexico. 


Take Action - Alternative, Mineral Based Organic Sunscreens

Natural sunscreens that are safe for reefs are the only type of sunscreen we stock here on Wholesome Hub. Instead of chemical UV filters, they contain zinc oxide and/or titanium oxide, that physically block out the harmful UV rays of the sun.


They don't contain nanoparticles, although the particles of zinc and titanium oxides they do contain are small enough to absorb into our skin so that they don’t leave us with an uncomfortable, thick white coverage. Our natural sunscreens from UV Natural, Eco Tan, Soleo, Little Innoscents and Wotnot are just as effective as the more usual sunscreens, but are kinder to us, and our aquatic environments. They all pass the Therapeutic Goods Administration (TGA) tests for effectiveness and safety, too.


With our own Great Barrier Reef experiencing devastating bleaching and facing an unknown future, it can only make sense that our government looks at a ban on reef damaging sunscreens.


Sunscreen isn’t the only reason our coral reefs are bleaching at an alarming rate. Sewage outlets, global warming and the runoff from large agricultural farms that reaches the oceans also contributes. But these are all large, multi-faceted and complicated problems that will take decades of research and multidisciplinary government agencies to sort out. Let alone all that red tape cutting.


It seems that avoiding the use of chemical laden sunscreens is something we can do, without any need for big change. Whether our government takes steps to ban harmful sunscreens or not, we can choose to ban our own personal use of them and switch to mineral UV protection instead.


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