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August 2022    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 48, No. 8   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Common Sunscreens Can Damage Marine Life (and You Too)

from the August, 2022 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The giant Posidonia seagrass meadows in the shallow bays of the Mediterranean could be hundreds of thousands of years old. The are now contaminated with the sunscreen chemicals such as oxybenzone avobenzone 4-methyl, benzylidene camphor, and others, reports a study published in Marine Pollution Bulletin.

The same sunscreen chemicals have been found in the plasma of loggerhead turtles on the coast of Italy, report scientists at Italy's University of Camerino, published in Science Direct; the concentrations correlate with almost all of the gene biomarkers of inflammation, oxidative stress, and hormonal activity. If your doctor found those problems in your plasma - and maybe they are - he'd be shocked.

It's even affecting zebrafish in countries as diverse as India, China, and Brazil, and corals as well. New research by Djordje Vuckovic and Bill Mitch, published in The Scientist, found that corals absorb oxybenzone and then convert it into harmful photo-toxins that can affect invertebrates and fish.

Still, few governmental bodies show much concern, though authorities in Florida, Hawaii, and Bonaire have publicly stated that these chemicals can damage coral reefs and other marine life. Three years ago, Hawaii's legislature banned reef-harming sunscreens. While they may be effective UV blockers for humans, octinoxate and oxybenzone are toxic to fish and corals at high concentrations.

After seeing the reef and fish science about toxic sunscreen ingredients and recognizing how dependent Key West is on reef tourism, the city council banned reef-destroying sunscreen. But, Governor Ron DeSantis thumbed his nose at local control and the science that Key West cited and signed a bill prohibiting all Florida cities from banning sunscreens, with Key West on the top.

It gets worse: A scientific pilot study conducted by the Center for Drug Evaluation and Research and published in the medical journal JAMA on May 2 found it took just one day for several common sunscreen ingredients to enter the human bloodstream at levels high enough to trigger a government safety investigation.

Back in 2018, we told you to read the label before purchasing sunscreen. There are alternatives to oxybenzone, such as Stream2Sea with no oxybenzone ( Even Tropical Seas offers oxybenzone-free sunscreens, though it continues to market its oxybenzone product, so don't be misled by the name Reef Safe. There are also sunscreens made by Coral Isles ( containing no zinc oxide, titanium dioxide, or oxybenzone.

Consumer Reports recommends five effective sunscreens with no oxybenzone or octinoxate:

  • La Roche-Posay Anthelios Melt-In Milk Lotion SPF60 ($37)
  • Equate (Walmart) Ultra Lotion SPF 50 ($5)
  • Trader Joe's Spray SPF 50+ ($6)
  • Alba Botanica Hawaiian Coconut Clear Spray SPF50 ($9.50)
  • Sun Bum Spray SPF 50 ($16)

The best protection from harmful ultra-violet rays is to wear a long-sleeved shirt and brimmed hat. If you're diving, wear a dive skin or wetsuit and hood. Slip on a shirt and slap on a hat, but don't slop on the wrong sunscreen.

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