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Wavescape - Surfing in South Africa

Mon, 13 November 2017

A ban on most sunscreens by Hawaii could spark a global bid to save sensitive coral reefs from death by the toxic chemicals found in suncare products, writes Anne van Huyssteen of RAspect.


I SCREAM WE SCREEN: Forgive them for they know not what they do. Annie Spratt /Unsplash

Hawaii led the way with the origin of surfing and the surfboard, but now the home of aloha has extended this kindred care to the ocean. The majority of sunscreens are a chemical stew that may prevent sunburn, but have many other effects too, including the mutilation of coral reefs.

The main culprit is one chemical, oxybenzone, which poisons the algae that sustains coral, and the coral itself. Even tiny amounts are toxic. However, despite scientific proof of the dangers they pose, sunscreen manufacturers use oxybenzone widely.

Many people, including Hawaiian state senator Will Espero and his supporters, are fighting to prohibit the sale of all sunscreens containing oxybenzone (and that’s a lot of sunscreens - see the list below). To protect the coral that shapes their island’s waves, he and his team put together a bill to ban oxybenzone this year.


FOOTPRINTS: Humans are slowly starting to realise their impact. Photo Jakob Owens / Unsplash

However, they have been met with fierce resistance. Big cosmetic companies and their trade associations, whose revenues would be adversely affected by the ban, blocked it. They claim the case is not strong enough to justify a step that would have such a big impact on business. Unfortunately the impact of their business on the coral can't wait for research to proceed. The reefs are dying fast.

The effect of sunscreen chemicals like oxybenzone is one of the most dramatic and direct dangers to coralAs we all know, coral reefs literally shape the waves. They also provide an extraordinary environment that supports our intricate web of life. The reefs contribute to air and soil quality, provide spawning grounds for many fish species, and protect coastlines from the worst effects of tropical storms. Coral is under threat from a number of directions, notably the acidification and warming of the oceans. But the effect of sunscreen chemicals like oxybenzone is one of the most dramatic and direct dangers to coral.

Even in tiny quantities, Oxybenzone poisons the algae that symbiotically support the coral, which is a colony of invertebrate animals. These animals in turn support the algae gardens that photosynthesise food from sunlight, providing 90% of the coral’s food.


GRIM REAPER: This is literally what we are doing when we dive and surf over sensitive coral.

pineapple-supply-coThe horrible irony is that it's more toxic to plants when they are exposed to sunlight. Of course, the sunnier the place, the more people use it. There is a massive die-off of algae where sunscreen-smeared humans splash about. Upwards of 6,000 tons of sunscreen are estimated globally to enter the waters around coral reefs each year.

It's a deadly dose. In a bid to survive, the coral expels the poisoned algae and starves. The grey-white and crumbling, empty ghosts of their former glory remain. (This doesn't happen when organic material floats out to sea, right)

Oxybenzone also harms coral directly, causing deadly DNA mutations and interfering with reproduction. This devastation only needs tiny concentrations of oxybenzone, well within the tonnage that is released into the sea annually. There is evidence that oxybenzone is an endocrine (hormone) disruptor in humans too. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that 97% of Americans are contaminated with oxybenzone. It’s one of several chemical sunscreen ingredients that could do you much more harm than good.

There are two bits of good news at the end of this sad story. First, Will Espero and his supporters are not giving up. They intend to continue pushing for the ban in 2018. And once Hawaii announces a ban, others will surely follow. Second, there are effective natural alternatives sunscreens available to you that don’t contain oxybenzone, or other chemicals that endanger marine life or your own health. Support a ban, but also take matters into your own hands, and make sure you protect your own skin without sowing unintended destruction.

Sunscreen brands containing oxybenzone (spot the heavy irony in two names): Alba Botanica, Dior, L’Oreal, Reviva Labs, Aloe Sense, Earth Science, La Prairie, Revlon, Australian Gold, Eco Lips, La Roche-Posay, Rite Aid, Aveeno, Equate, Lubriderm, RoC, Avon, Estee Lauder, Lumene, Sol Scents, Banana Boat, Eucerin, Maui Mike’s, SolBar, Blue Lizard, Fair and Square, Merle Norman, Sun Bum, Carmex, Fruit of the Earth, Neutrogena, Thermalabs, Cetaphil, Garnier, Nivea, TriDerma, Clarins, Gator, NO-AD, Up & Up, Coppertone, Hawaiian Tropic, Ocean Potion, Vichy, Daylogic, Iman, Olay, ViVite, Defense Zone, Jergens, Palmer’s, Walgreens, Dermalogica, Kiehl’s, Panama Jack, Wet n Wild

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