“What you’ve just put on is killing the corals”
That’s how sure Pablo was, as we smeared sunscreen on ourselves just before getting into the water on a fabulous beach in the Indian Ocean.
Then he took another cream out of his backpack, and as if it were a TV advert, he told us that his cream could be used because it was REEF FRIENDLY.
Everybody there took note. The fact came from someone who has lots of experience in the sea. As a diving instructor has a moral obligation to point out to his or her customers not to touch or remove the corals, not to stand on them and to be extremely careful not to hit them with their fins, and now to avoid getting into the sea with sunscreen lotion on.
That was a real surprise to me. Sunscreens have always been very controversial because of their effects on our health, although their use is well regulated by the European Union.
But… I had no idea that they were responsible for the disappearance of the corals.
However, there are scientific studies that link the effects of sunscreens not only on corals but on a large part of the marine ecosystem that requires sunlight to live.
This is why it is a problem that affects us all, whether we have spectacular coral reefs on our coastlines like in documentaries or not.
This is because some sunscreens act as bioaccumulators, which means that these marine organisms absorb these toxic substances and then they are unable to eliminate them and end up causing something similar to stress, leading to coral bleaching and more viral infections.
In short, a clear decline in the population of these living beings.
The compounds responsible for such destruction are two, oxybenzone and octinoxate (in case someone is interested in looking for them among the tiny hieroglyphic names in the list of ingredients of a cosmetic, they appear as BENZOPHENONE-3 and ETHYLHEXYL METHOXYCINNAMATE).
They’ve just been banned in Hawaii. No solar cosmetics containing these ingredients will be sold or distributed by 2021.
As expected, the cosmetic industry is up in arms about it.
Their arguments are aimed at blaming the deterioration of corals on climate change and overfishing, among others issues, warning on the increased risk of skin damage due to the lack of sun protection, and the fact that in other countries the use of these filters is considered safe.
In Europe, the maximum amount permitted for oxybenzone was reduced in September 2017 to 6%. Octinoxate’s are still at 10 per cent. In short, we’re still using them.
So, what do you think are they good at or not?
It’s not an easy answer.
The European regulation on cosmetic products considers them safe for humans in the quantities indicated, and for the time being, there is no danger to other species either, since when these substances are analysed individually in a laboratory, the results obtained do not suggest otherwise.
However, how many people do you know who don’t use sunscreen when they go to the beach? I’m sure very few. Even my father who used to avoid using it recently surprised me when I found him spraying his bald head with it.
The thing is when we get into the water we lose at least a quarter of what we apply. Bearing in mind that we are paying more and more attention to the recommendations and putting on about 36 g of cream or similar per adult, the amount being washed off into the sea is high.
But the important point is not what an individual person puts on, but in what thousands of people do when they cram the beaches. Now the amount of sunscreen that’s staying in the sea is rising. This is the real problem.
Looking at it in this way, a decision like Hawaii’s is understandable. Coral Reefs are important not only for their ecological richness but also for the enormous income they generate from tourism, so paying attention to their conservation is a top priority.
What I criticize the most is the labelling of certain sunscreen products. Whether it is “biodegradable”or “reef friendly” does not guarantee anything. What the industry have done is replace the two conflicting sunscreens with others that have also begun to be questioned.
It is clear that much more research is needed to determine which sunscreens can certainly be considered good or bad for the marine environment.
Meanwhile, sunscreen cosmetics are and will continue to be fundamental. I don’t think I’d ever stop using them. But if we get used to wearing T-shirts with a protection factor or lycra (better than cotton), we would reduce the amount of cream left in the sea by at least half.
And this is a very simple gesture to start solving a big problem, isn’t it?
This post is also available in: Spanish