Are You Unknowingly Endangering Marine Life with Your Sunscreen?

Sunscreen products use either mineral or chemical filters to protect your skin from harmful UV rays. Mineral sunscreens form a physical barrier over your skin using either zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or both. Whereas chemical sunscreens are absorbed into the skin using any combination of oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, octocrylene, octisalate or other common UV-absorbing chemicals.

Unfortunately, statistics show approximately 14,000 tons – about 28 million pounds – of sunscreen products are washed into the Earth’s oceans each year. The ingredients in mineral sunscreen products, including zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are nontoxic and safe for the environment. But some of the ingredients found in chemical sunscreen products can have a devastating and everlasting impact on marine life.

When worn into the water or even just on the beach, they will end up in the ocean, where they will cause major damage. Once in the ocean, these synthetic chemicals can poison and kill marine life that they comes into contact with. Unless you live under a rock, by now you've probably heard about the devastating effects chemicals from sunscreen is having on coral reefs, but in addition, they are affecting fish, sea urchins, and mammals.

Hormone Disruption

Because many sunscreen chemicals are hormone disruptors, their effects on marine life are often felt through multiple generations. According to the National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), chemical exposure from sunscreen at the fish level has been shown to cause birth defects as well as decreased fertility and reproduction. In sea urchins, it's been linked to immune system suppression and offspring deformity.

Sunscreen chemicals trigger a hormonal imbalance in marine mammals, resulting in decreased fertility rates that carry on to their young. In dolphins, sunscreen chemicals build up in soft tissue and transfer to their young during breastfeeding. This is also seen in seals and sea lions.

Most marine mammals are affected on a hormonal level by sunscreen chemicals. That's true from the smaller ones like sea otters on up to manatees and polar bears. That is why it’s important for everyone to take a conscious approach towards choosing a marine-friendly, mineral-based sunscreen lotion.

Largest Marine Mammals Affected

Even the majestic whale is being threatened by chemicals in sunscreen. Research shows toxicity levels in phytoplankton. Considering that a typical whale eats up to 8,000 pounds of phytoplankton per day, this could pose a serious problem for many whale species. As large schools of phytoplankton are seemingly wiped out by sunscreen chemicals, whales will struggle to find a reliable source of food.

The threat posed by chemical sunscreens has prompted Hawaii to ban two of the most common chemicals used in these products. In 2018, Hawaii Governor David Ige signed a bill banning the sale of sunscreen products containing either oxybenzone or octinoxate, citing research linking these two common sunscreen chemicals to coral bleaching. Starting Jan. 1, 2021, businesses located in Hawaii won’t be allowed to sell sunscreen products containing either of these chemicals.

Coral reef bleaching - before and after

How Coral Bleaching Occurs

How do oxybenzone or octinoxate cause coral bleaching exactly? While acting as UV filters, these chemicals induce viral infections in coral. UV sunlight typically kills infection-causing viruses. But when coral is coated in either of these two chemicals, UV sunlight isn’t able to penetrate through and reach the coral’s surface, thereby paving the way for viral infections.

In addition to being harmful to marine life, chemical-filter sunscreen products could be harmful to your health. While medical experts are still trying to understand how exactly the chemicals in these products affect the human body, research again is pointing towards hormone disruption. For your own health as well as the health of the environment, avoid using chemical sunscreens and, instead, choose an all-natural mineral-based product.

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Melissa Allen

Inspired by nature. Built for adventure.

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  • Joan Embery


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