When people go on vacation to a tropical locale, one of the first things they want to do is hit the water. Sun, sand, and fun are usually at the top of their to-do list.
For those who live in these amazing tropical locations, it’s a different way of life than other areas around the world, but for many, it still involves some type of water activity.
Scuba diving, fishing, water sports, snorkeling, and sailing are often part of the daily life for natives of these prime waterfront locations. Visitors and natives alike enjoy taking part in some of the world’s most stunning aquatic environments.
Many of these areas boast amazing sea life such as coral reefs. These unique underwater structures are formed by hard coral species (hermatypic) which pull calcium carbonate out of the seawater. This creates a tough, stiff exoskeleton that shields their soft bodies, which are much like small sacs.
As coral polyp’s grow, some species begin to look similar to trees or plants. This includes species known as sea whips or fans. Surviving on the calcium carbonate from the exoskeletons of their predecessors, these reefs grow over time. It happens gradually, one small coral polyp at a time, but over centuries, these corals have formed massive reefs in areas around the world. Many are 5,000 to 10,000 years old.
This ecosystem is one of the most diverse yet productive in the world. Providing habitat that includes areas for feeding, breeding, and shelter, these reef systems are home to more than 700 coral species and 4,000 fish species. They also accommodate life for thousands of species of plants and animals.
Sadly, these amazing structures, having stood the test of thousands of years, are now vulnerable and in need of help. The rise in ocean temperatures as well as pollution have resulted in the loss of almost 30% of the world’s reef systems. Now there is another threat on the horizon, and it’s one that many well-known areas have begun steps to protect their prized possession from.
Researchers say that chemical sunscreens have been taking a toll on the world’s reefs.
Reefs act as natural protection for coastlines by buffering up to 97% - 97%!!! - of the energy off incoming waves. This absorption helps to prevent erosion caused by storms and strong currents.
Since most coral reefs are located in warmer, tropical areas which see a great number of lotion coated tourists flocking to the water, this is a major concern for many areas.
With year-round visitors, slathering themselves in some form of sunscreen or sun block from head to toe, the reefs get no relief from the constant flow of these harmful chemicals. Topping the list are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate which are used in more than 3,500 sunscreen formulas worldwide, including many popular, well-known brands.
The list also includes:
- - Benzophenone-1
- - Benzophenone-8
- - 3-Benzylidene camphor
- - 4-Methylbenzylidene camphor
- - OD-PABA
Sea-dwelling beings are not the only lives impaired by the effects of chemical sunscreens. Humans are potentially at risk as well. As stated by Florida Senator Linda Stewart, "If it's hurting ocean life, it seems to me it might have some other effect on the human body," Stewart said.
These chemicals are absorbed into the human bloodstream immediately upon application to the skin. Studies show that a single application of oxybenzone based sunscreen could contain more than 360 times the FDA’s recommended threshold. Research also shows that it not only stays in the system for long periods of time, but the levels go up with every application.
How it Happens
The chemicals in these sunscreens can wash off the body, hence the need to reapply after going in the water. Not only do they enter the water directly from swimmers, but in some locations where homes or public areas deposit directly into the waterways, it can seep into the oceans.
Several common ingredients have proven to cause damage to marine life, even killing coral larvae when found in concentrations of 62 parts per trillion (PPT) or higher. This is the equivalent of one drop of the chemical in 6.5 swimming pools of Olympic size.
Areas tested by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) include Bahia Honda of the Florida Keys with an oxybenzone level of 4,474 ppt as of August 2015, Key West’s Fort Zachary Taylor with oxybenzone levels of 8,114 ppt in March 2017, and Miami Beach which topped out with levels at 15,425 in August of 2015. These were in extreme excess of the levels considered by the FDA.
In a 2015 study reported by NPR, oxybenzone "leaches the coral of its nutrients and bleaches it white. It can also disrupt the development of fish and other wildlife." The study estimated that coral reefs were subjected to approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen per year worldwide.
Affecting various marine life, sunscreen chemicals can cause the following damage:
- Coral: Builds up in the tissues, causing bleaching, DNA damage, deforming young coral and even killing it.
- Dolphins: Collects in the tissue and transmits to their young.
- Fish: Decreases fertility as well as reproduction. Also causes female features in male fish.
- Green Algae: Damages growth and photosynthesis.
- Mussels: Causes defects in young mussels.
- Sea Urchins: Damages immune and reproductive systems as well as cause deformities in young.
Though more studies on the chemical effects to humans are needed, they could potentially include developmental issues, immune and neurological problems, and disruption of the endocrine system such as:
- Poor quality sperm in males, which can result in infertility
- Endometriosis in women
- Birth defects
There’s also a higher likelihood of developing skin problems such as acne and rashes due to the fact that the chemicals soak into the pores and can cause them to clog.
Who is on Board?
The U.S. and the Caribbean have taken measures to protect their marine life by banning sunscreens with these chemicals. Tourist areas such as the Caribbean island of Bonaire, Florida, Key West, Hawaii, and the U.S. Virgin Islands are also on board with protecting their aquatic habitats.
According to Harith Wickrema, president of the Island Green Living Association, "Tourism-based economies will experience financial devastation if coral reefs and other marine life cannot recover. The ripple effect would be huge, and we need to take action now.”
Even areas of the Pacific, such as the nation of Palau are pushing to ban the harsh chemicals. Taking effect in 2020, Palau’s legislative bodies have put a $1,000 fine in place for businesses selling non-biodegradable sunscreens.
Tommy Remengesau, President of Palau stated, "We have to live and respect the environment because the environment is the nest of life. When science tells us that a practice is damaging to coral reefs, to fish populations, or to the ocean itself, our people take note and our visitors do too. Toxic sunscreen chemicals have been found throughout Palau's critical habitats, and in the tissues of our most famous creatures. We don't mind being the first nation to ban these chemicals, and we will do our part to spread the word."
Even areas of Mexico are concerned enough to ask visitors to only wear natural sunscreens. These areas include Riviera Maya, Xel Ha, Xcaret Park, Garrafon Natural Reef Park as well as locations in Cozumel and Playa del Carmen. While a ban has not yet been put in place in these areas, locals heavily suggest refraining from using chemical based items.
How to Protect Ourselves as Well as Marine Life
Even though it’s not wise to use chemical sunscreens, using some sort of sun blocker is a must to prevent skin cancer and advanced aging brought on by the sun’s strong rays. By using FDA approved sunscreens that contain the mineral ingredients titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, you’ll protect not only yourself and your family but the priceless gifts that lay below our ocean’s surface.
Other ways you can protect yourself include seeking shade during the sun’s peak times from 10am-2pm, using a sun umbrella, covering up with lightweight clothing like Ultraviolet Protection Factor (UPF) sun wear, and wearing UV sunglasses.