Skin cancer will affect one in five people in their lifetime, making it vital we take precautions to lessen our risk.
With that statistic in mind, however, we need to be aware that certain ingredients found in commercially produced sunblock may pose dangers to our environment, particularly our beaches and oceans.
According to the Ocean Conservatory, studies have found that the common sunscreen ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate may be endangering coral reefs. The theory is that once these chemicals enter ocean water — for example, when you go for a swim, lathered in sunblock — they have the potential to “decrease corals’ defenses against bleaching, damaging their DNA and hurting their development.”
The damage contributes to ocean acidification, water pollution, coral disease, rising sea temperatures, and may even halt the coral’s ability to reproduce. The National Park Service estimated that a whopping 4,000-6,000 tons of sunscreen make their way to coral reef areas each year, causing “bleaching” and even death of coral reefs.
Concerning data such as this is why areas like Key West have begun banning sunscreen containing these two unsafe ingredients. The New York Times reported that on Tuesday, February 5, Key West mayor Teri Johnston announced the measure, approved by the City Commission, that would instate the ban.
“Our coral has been under attack by a number of stressors,” Mayor Teri Johnston told The Times. “We just thought if there was one thing we could do, to take one of the stressors away, it was our responsibility to do so.”
Johnston said anyone who demonstrates a medical need will be allowed to use sunblock with the banned ingredients. If you defy the ban, you will receive a warning at first, but the second offense will result in a fine. She hopes the ban not only works to protect Key West’s coral reefs, but serves as a push for sunscreen manufacturers to stop using these damaging ingredients in their products.
Key West, a popular vacation spot in the Florida Keys, isn’t the first beachy location to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate. Last year, the entire state of Hawaii banned these ingredients. The nation of Palau also banned the sale of sunscreens with these chemicals — along with eight other offending ingredients.
In a July, 2018 article about oxybenzone and octinoxate, published in The Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, Dr. Henry W. Lim — board-certified dermatologist and chair emeritus of the dermatology department at Henry Ford Health System in Detroit — stated that although studies have begun to emerge, more research needs to be done to prove definitively that these ingredients are harmful to coral reefs.
Dr. Lim pointed out that these ingredients pose no threats to humans, and he highlighted the imperative need for people to properly protect themselves from the harmful UV rays of the sun. Dr. Lim also explained that sunscreen isn’t the only precaution people need to take to protect themselves. He offered a “comprehensive sun protection plan” that included staying in the shade when possible, wearing sun-protective clothing and always applying water resistant sunblock with a SPF of 30 or more.
Other practices you might consider adopting include wearing sunglasses, donning a wide-rimmed hat and limiting your time in the sun, especially at the peak sunlight concentration hours of 10am to 4pm.
In addition, Dr. Lim offered an alternative to anyone who is concerned about oxybenzone and octinoxate: “Those who are concerned about the potential effects of chemical sunscreen ingredients on the environment can opt for a physical sunscreen containing the active ingredients zinc oxide or titanium dioxide,” he said.
Not only are zinc oxide and titanium dioxide — found in many products, including Public Goods’ SPF 50 sunscreen — effective for preventing sunburns, but they are environmentally and coral reef-safe. According to The National Park Service: “While no sunscreen has been proven to be completely ‘reef-friendly,’ those with titanium oxide or zinc oxide, which are natural mineral ingredients, have not been found harmful to corals.”
As The Times pointed out, coral reefs are also being damaged because of global warming. But as opposed to many of the factors that cause global warming, the kind of sunblock we apply before going snorkeling or for an ocean dip is something we have control over.
Changing your sunblock buying habits is a simple way to “do your part” when it comes to protecting the earth and slowing down environmental destruction. And because so many great and effective sunscreen alternatives are out there, you won’t have to sacrifice sun safety either.
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