baby coral are menaced by a skull and crossbones with a sunscreen icon on them

"Green" Screen?

Last updated: May 2019

I try to be environmentally conscious. I recycle. I try to turn off light when I leave a room. I try not to let the faucet run. I am “pro” earth. We have it pretty good here. Have you seen pictures of Saturn? I want to do my part and be a good steward of our home. I try to be aware. I just became aware of something that I did not know. It has been reported that the chemicals in some sunscreens are actually harmful to the coral reef in our oceans.

Where's the beach?

I live in Buffalo, New York now, so I rarely think about the ocean these days. We have Lake Erie, but the two-inch waves don’t excite me much. Mostly the lake produces lots of snow here. In places like Hawaii they think about the ocean all the time. With tourism and fishing and aquatic industries being at the heart of the heart economic livelihood, they must. Understandable.

A new law regarding ocean safe sunscreen

This past summer Hawaii Governor David Ige signed the first bill in the country to ban the use of all sunscreens containing chemicals that can harm coral reefs.1 So, beginning on January 1, 2021, the sale or distribution of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate (which help filter out harmful UV rays) will be strictly prohibited.

Are we harming our ecosystem?

Recent studies have shown that these chemicals can kill coral when they have washed off swimmers and are discharged into wastewater treatment plants and redeposited into the ocean. "Oxybenzone is really toxic to the juvenile form of corals," said Craig Downs, a forensic ecotoxicologist and executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory who will be attending the signing of the bill. "And that's consistent with the dogma of toxicology that juveniles are usually a thousand times more sensitive to the toxic effects of a chemical than a parent.1"

Alternate views

According to Downs, these chemicals cause coral larva to encase itself in its own skeleton where it falls to the bottom and dies. Ugh! Downs also argues that the use of these chemicals lowers the coral’s ability to resist the impact of climatic changes. Not everyone supports the ban. Sunscreen manufacturers argue that this ban is not supported by enough evidence and that banning the use of these two chemicals that are safe for humans should require more testing.

The pushback

The American Dermatology Association is also concerned that this may lead to more incidents of melanoma in Hawaii. According to Dr. Henry Lim from the Henry Ford Hospital in Detroit, the limited number of FDA-approved UV filters makes finding suitable sunscreen options a challenge, but there are alternative ingredients with different mechanisms of sun protection, including zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.

Be aware

So, what does this all mean? It probably means that more research is needed, but that we should be aware of the studies and dangers proposed and the laws enacted. If the use of these chemicals concerns you, give a look at the article for recommendations on coral reef safe sunscreen products. I know that I will monitor the situation and if I am ever lucky enough to go to Hawaii or any beach, I will be applying reef-safe products for sure.

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