How is sunscreen actually affecting the marine environment?
As we all know that when the sun is shining it’s time to slather on the sunscreen and protect ourselves from sunburn and potential skin cancer, but have you ever thought about the effect that sunscreen is having on the marine environment?
Sunscreens are made up of several complex chemicals and when you enter the water after application it can start to wash off and spread into the marine environment. New aerosol sunscreens when sprayed on the beach can also rest on the sand and then later on be washed into the ocean. The seemingly harmless action of applying sunscreen has now prompted scientists to notice the damage being done to the ocean and specifically the coral reefs.
Statistics state that there are currently between 6,000 and 14,000 tons of sunscreen being washed off and then entering our coral reefs each year. This is a noticeable amount considering that you only need a concentration of 62 parts per trillion, which is the equivalent of a drop of water in an Olympic swimming pool, to cause toxicity in the ocean.
The main ingredient in sunscreen, which is creating the most impact on the marine environment, is oxybenzone; it has been linked to coral bleaching, reef deformity and coral death, especially in young species. Oxybenzone prevents coral in its larval stage from reaching maturity as it disrupts the development of coral hormones and further causes the coral to produce excess calcium carbonate, meaning that it encases itself in its own skeleton and the larvae are unable to reproduce and eventually die. Oxybenzone is also linked to coral bleaching, causing corals to expel the colourful algae living inside them, leaving behind the bleached-looking exoskeleton that ultimately leads to coral-reef death. Such a harmful chemical also has had a toxic impact on fish larvae and embryos, hence once the reef bleaches and dies, the fish population that inhabits the reefs will soon begin to decline as the reef can no longer sustain their environment.
Scientists have come to realise that it’s not just climate change alone that is causing impact on the coral reefs and marine environments. Microplastics, coastal developments, tourism and pollutants all add stress onto this environment, decreasing coral reef resilience. Therefore, when global events like bleaching, acidification and El Niño occur, the reefs are too weak to survive. Leading to external implications as The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has estimated, damage to the coral reefs will impact industries worth tens of billions for their value to fisheries, tourism and as naturally occurring buffers against storms. When coral reefs are affected, the whole ecosystem and even our economy feels the after effects. It’s a cruel irony that protecting yourself from the sun and harmful UV rays has come at a cost to the ocean, but this manageable situation has inspired the creation of a number of less damaging products.
Titled “reef safe” sunscreens are products that aim to reduce the amount of oxybenzone entering our waters and could mean that a coral reef is less affected or that a degraded area can begins to recover due to relief from these irritants. One example of a reef-safe product is “Stream2Sea”, which is an eco-conscious company that manufactures biodegradable and aquatic toxicity tested body-care products, which not only protect you and your family from the sun’s damaging rays, but also the planet’s waters. All products are rigorously tested and the company guarantees that they’re all made with the safest possible ingredients.
With such products already on the market, brands are beginning to highlight the relation between harmful ingredients and the environment as an issue that needs to be controlled. With coral reefs being such a fragile habitat already, the added stress and consequences of sunscreens are only escalating this problem. The marine environment is not just for beach go-ers or scuba divers to enjoy, but it's also vastly important to everyone and everything that relies on it for shoreline protection, medicines, tourism and economic benefits. It is our responsibility to see and understand how all of our actions, even applying sunscreen, can affect our marine environment. It's time for us to all #GoGreenForTheBigBlue.
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