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Is your sunscreen toxic? How you can best protect yourself and the environment

Coral reefs can be polluted by toxic sunscreens. Credit: AP/Olga Tsai/Unsplash

The Pacific Ocean island nation of Palau has become the first country in the world to ban sunscreens containing chemicals harmful to animals and the environment.

Hawaii has passed laws to invoke a similar ban from January 2021 – with the Caribbean island of Bonaire, and Key West in Florida set to follow suit next year.

And with the US Virgin Islands outlawing certain sunscreens from March this year, there is a growing movement to take action.

So, if you’re eyeing an exotic summer holiday, how best can you protect yourself from the Sun’s harmful UV rays while protecting the planet?

A number of toxic ingredients can be found in many sunscreens. Credit: Antonio Gabola/Unsplash

Is your sunscreen toxic?

The International Coral Reef Initiative is an informal partnership between Nations and organisations which strives to preserve coral reefs and related ecosystems around the world.

Set up in 1994 by eight nations, including the UK, it works closely with the UN to highlight the damage caused to reefs by pollution.

It stresses that not all sunscreens nor all components of sunscreen are toxic to marine life, however, those that are, can be damaging.

There are a vast number of ingredients found in sunscreens that are harmful, these include (but are not limited to):

  • Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3)
  • Ethylparaben
  • Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate)
  • Butylparaben
  • Octocrylene
  • 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor
  • Benzylparaben
  • Triclosan
  • Methylparaben
  • Phenoxyethanol

Those areas that have banned toxic sunscreens will look to fine importers and shops selling brands containing them.

President of Palau Tommy Remengesau stated: "When science tells us that a practice is damaging to coral reefs, to fish populations, or tot he ocean itself, our people take note and our visitors do too."

  • 'The coral has bleached and died due to rising sea temperatures and the fish have gone.' ITV News Africa Correspondent Penny Marshall reports from Madagascar on how climate change hits the poorest communities

What damage can these chemicals do?

The ingredients listed above are known as environmental pollutants; most of them are endocrine disruptors – chemicals that interfere with hormonal systems at certain levels.

Some are toxic to juvenile stages of many wildlife species, including corals, fish, macroalgae.

According to the ICRI, sunscreen pollution can reduce the resiliency of ecosystems to climate change factors and, by themselves, prevent the recovery of degrading wildlife and habitats.

Claire Rumsey, from the ICR, told ITV News: “The most commonly heard of dangerous ingredient in sunscreen is probably oxybenzone, over a dozen scientific papers have demonstrated how toxic it is to marine life, including corals.

“Oxybenzone can cause corals to become more susceptible to bleaching, it can damage their DNA and can deform and kill juvenile corals.

“Oxybenzone has also been documented to turn adult male fish into female fish and cause developmental defects, it is also toxic to shrimp, sea urchins, and bivalves (e.g., scallops, mussels), and is especially toxic to marine algae.”

According to environmental pressure group Marine Safe, measurements taken around coral reefs in Hawaii found levels of oxybenzone at concentrations 12 times higher than the level at which it affects juvenile coral.

Swathes of ocean coral reefs have been hit by bleaching. Credit: PA

Do these chemicals harm the body?

New research carried out in the US by Center for Drug Evaluation and Research, part of the US Food and Drug Administration, has concluded that a number of active ingredients in sunscreen formulations are systemically absorbed into the bloodstream at concentrations that surpassed the FDA threshold.

The FDA conducted a pilot trial of four sunscreen active ingredients (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, and ecamsule) in four commercially available sunscreen products

That study, carried out a year ago, demonstrated that all tested sunscreen active ingredients were absorbed systemically and remained in plasma for at least three days after the last application.

The follow-up study re-evaluated that research and assessed three active ingredients not evaluated in the previous study (homosalate, octisalate, and octinoxate).

Volunteers were asked to apply sunscreens on 75% of their bodies the first day. On day two, three and four, they were asked to apply the same amount at four times during the day.

Readings showed chemical concentration levels of the six ingredients rose after each application and for two - homosalate and oxybenzone - remained above FDA recommended levels for 21 days after use.

The CDER say a larger, more detailed study is needed and stressed the findings should not be taken as meaning people should stop using sunscreen.

Several active ingredients in sunscreens have been identified as harmful to coral. Credit: AP

So, what are the 'reef-safe' screens?

There are a number of sunscreen brands that are “reef-safe”.

Ethical Consumer is a pressure group that has been a major mover in the campaign to give shoppers more information on the environmental credentials of businesses and manufacturers.

It’s produced several guides ranking products and firms on a ‘green scale’.

A spokesperson for Ethical Consumer told ITV News: “There is still a lot of scientific uncertainty on the effects of different types of sunscreen on the environment, although more information has been coming in recently. However, it is important to use it: skin cancer kills thousands of people a year in the UK.

“There are two types of sunscreen – chemical and mineral. You can avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are the chemicals that have been particularly linked to coral reef destruction, by using mineral sunscreens which are made of zinc oxide or titanium oxide.

“However, mineral sunscreens often contain nanoparticles, and there are also some concerns about the effects of that on the environment, too. There are some non-nano versions around, but they may leave a white residue on your skin."

Ethical Consumer made the following non-nano mineral sunscreens Best Buys in its last guide, because of their all-round good policies: Odylique, Badger, Neal's Yard and Green People.

Palau president Tommy Remengesau says he hopes other nations will follow their lead. Credit: AP

What else can I do?

Clearly, voting with your wallet or purse is one of the most effective ways to get manufacturers to change.

But the use of protective sun gear, for example, broad-brimmed hats, long sleeves etc are environmentally safe ways to protect people from the sun, in addition to using reef-safe sunscreen.