Sunscreen & the Ocean

It’s almost Spring! And after an (occasionally) cold, dreary Winter, some of us are busy booking getaways. There is some news out there on sunscreens and their effect on coral reefs that is important when considering your environmental footprint before heading off on vacation.

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 4.50.36 PMAt my most recent skin check, my new dermatologist wanted the rundown on what sunscreens/skin care I used. I explained that I use only natural (non-chemical) skincare lines and am hyper-aware of chemical in products, particularly sunscreens. She took a patient, but somewhat annoyed stance, citing that the EWG’s annual sunscreen list and subsidiary site, Skin Deep, as a bit of a thorn in the side of many dermatologists. The gist being that doctors err on the side of extreme protection and do not view the chemicals that many of us are alarmed about as a significant health risk.

Gray at Byron2I don’t agree. Especially when it comes to children. Their smaller body mass and re-application rate due to their active play habits (in and out of water) put them at greater risk to the host of hormone disruptors commonly found in standard sunscreens.

I’m looking forward to my next visit to my dermatologist, armed with a recent study showing sunscreen’s harmful effects to our oceans and reefs. Coral reefs are a vital part of our ocean’s eco-system and essential to healthy marine life.

Screen Shot 2016-03-07 at 4.30.26 PMThe study shows how a tiny amount of sunscreen containing oxybenzone – think one drop of water in six Olympic sized swimming pools – can have a devastating effect on coral reefs, damaging their ability to absorb nutrients resulting in “bleaching”. Bleaching occurs when the brownish-green, nutrient rich algae is killed off, leaving a ghostly white coral skeleton. Once the coral is bleached, it can no longer host marine life, effectively ending entire eco-systems.

Bleached Coral

Bleached Coral

You don’t have to visit the beach to be culpable in the degradation of waters in your area. Depending on your municipal wastewater management system, you could be responsible for sending a host of harmful chemicals directly to the ocean as conventional sunscreens, plastic-micro-bead facial scrubs, birth control, and fragranced, chemical laden personal care products – most containing some form of endocrine disrupting chemical – ultimately wash down your shower drain.

“The most direct evidence we have is from beaches with a large amount of people in the water. But another way is through the wastewater streams. People come inside and step into the shower. People forget it goes somewhere.”

– John Fauth, associate professor of biology of the University of Central Florida, Orlando

We All Bear Some Responsibility

For many of us land-locked citizens of the planet, it’s harder to get worked up about the Great Barrier Reef, or the multitude of smaller reefs worldwide that we generally don’t see. But here’s why we should all be concerned: Coral reefs are found in 109 countries globally and serious degradation has occurred for reefs in 93 of those countries. 25% of the world’s fisheries are a result of healthy coral reefs as coral reefs are home to over a quarter of all known marine fish species. Without that food source, many countries can become food insecure. Properly managed reefs can yield 15 tons per square kilometer of fish each year.

Reefs also offer shoreline protection. The loss of reefs when storms are increasingly severe due to climate change, can prove devastating to costal areas.

Co-author to the study, Crain Downs, of the nonprofit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory warns “the use of oxybenzone-containing products needs to the be seriously deliberated in islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a critical issue. We have lost at least 80 percent of the coral reefs in the Caribbean. Any small effort to reduce oxybenzone pollution could mean that a coral reef survives a long, hot summer, or that a degraded area recovers.”

Reefs can Recover!

The good news, according to marine biologist John Pandolfi of the University of Queensland, is that “many reef corals just might be capable of adapting fast enough to survive current rates of global environmental change.” But adaption and recovery are largely reliant on protection from pollution and over fishing. Complex reefs in deeper waters, that are not deluged with pollution and have the benefit of cooler water, recover best.

The sad reality is that in the US, cosmetic companies are allowed to put nearly any chemical into personal care products, including known carcinogens, without any safety testing and without disclosing all the chemicals on the labels. There is a Personal Care Safety Act that could use your support if you feel as strongly as I do on this subject.

I can only repeat, if it’s not healthy for our bodies, as is the case with oxybenzone and the multiple list of chemicals found in our everyday personal care products, then it is 100%, not healthy for the environment.



About the Author

Here at Jenny Green Jeans, by sharing success stories and easy-to- implement tips, I hope to inspire and empower you to continue to make sustainable choices in your life and watch how far the impact goes. Contact me with any questions or suggestions you may have.

3 Enlightened Replies

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  1.' Emily fano says:

    Great article. I would just caution readers to be aware that much of the data from the EWG database comes from animal tests, largely on rodents, which are both cruel and scientifically flawed (see my book Lethal Laws on this topic). Nothing much has changed since I wrote the book in 1997. Groups like the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine are pushing regulatory agencies to use modern, accurate and cost effective screening methods – such as in vitro tests with human cells – to determine a chemical’s toxicity. These rapid tests – which can often produce results in 24 hours compared to years for an animal test – would likely screen out a majority of the toxic chemicals on the market. Our broken regulatory system allows toxic chemicals to stay on the market now because of fraudulent “safe doses” established through animal tests while the cumulative and synergistic effect of thousands of these “safe doses” is never addressed. I hope your readers will demand modern toxicological screening methods and ensure that any new regulation they support addresses this important issue.

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