In the Caribbean, the sun reigns! Positioned near the equator, tropical Islands experience year-round heat and exposure to the sun – attracting visitors from all over the world.
But if you’re not careful, the sun’s powerful rays might burn you!
So to protect ourselves from the sun, we use sunscreens designed to stop UV radiation.
But did you know that sunscreens contain chemicals that can hurt both ourselves and the ocean? As we swim, the chemicals from our sunscreens can come off, impacting vulnerable coral reef ecosystems.
But don’t worry, there’s a way you can stop this from happening!
The Power Of The Sun
The sun produces ultraviolet (UV) rays which can cause detrimental effects in humans such as cancer.
UV radiation has three wavelength categories; UVA, UVB and UVC. UVA and UVB are the most dangerous to humans because they cross the epidermis (skin).
Sunscreens are placed into two general categories; physical blockers and chemical blockers.
Physical blockers are sunscreens that act like a mirror and reflect the sun’s ultraviolet rays. While, chemical blockers are sunscreens which contain chemicals that absorb the sun’s ultraviolet rays. There are different types of chemical blockers, those which absorb UVA alone, UVB alone or both.
Sunscreens can use a variety of chemicals to protect you from the sun – some more harmful than others.
Physical blockers contain inorganic compounds which include zinc oxide(ZnO) and titanium dioxide (TiO2).
On the other hand, chemical blockers contain a wide range of organic compounds, including octyl methoxycinnamate (OMC), benzophenone-3 (BP-3) also called oxybenzone, octocrylene, and parabens.
We won’t bore you with details on each chemical ingredient (read more here) – but below is a list of the harmful ingredients to watch out for in sunscreens:
Effect on Humans
Even though sunscreens protect us from becoming burned, they can inadvertently cause us great harm. .
Some of the greatest health concerns from common sunscreen ingredients are:
- Endocrine disruption
- Hormone disruption
- Increased risk of cancer
- Reproductive toxins
- Bio-accumulation (they can build up in our bodies).
For something that’s designed to protect human health, it seems that sunscreens can really stray from their mission. But don’t worry, there are sunscreens being made now that protect your skin without using these chemicals.
Effects on Coral Reefs
The chemicals found in sunscreens can also cause serious problems for coral.
Corals have a fascinating relationship with algae called zooxanthellae. Zooxanthellae receive a home from coral and coral receive food from zooxanthellae.
The chemicals in sunscreen can cause coral bleaching, which occurs when zooxanthellae leave coral tissue or are destroyed.
Different chemicals cause bleaching in different ways. Benzophenone-2 causes zooxanthellae to become infected. While oxybenzone causes coral to become more heat sensitive so they bleach at lower temperatures; this causes coral to be less resilient and more susceptible to climate change.
Chemical sunscreens also damage coral larvae. The chemicals in the sunscreen cause the larvae to stop swimming, alter their shape, and eventually die. And it doesn’t stop there, these chemicals also act as endocrine disruptors in coral larvae, affecting their development. Oxybenzone particularly affects the livelihood of coral by damaging its DNA, causing coral to become more susceptible to disease.
There are several alternatives that anyone can use to help protect themselves from UV rays while protecting corals from the harsh chemicals found in sunscreens.
It’s nearly impossible to avoid the sun, and so if you are planning to spend time outdoors it’s important to protect both yourself and nature:
- Keep a list of the harmful ingredients while shopping to help you avoid sunscreens that use them.
- Purchase sunscreen from a reliable brand like Stream2Sea, who are transparent and tested.
- Wear articles of clothing that provide protection from UV rays like hats, long sleeve shirts and long pants.
- Use an umbrella to protect skin from UV rays.
Written by Micaela Small – Education Development Intern at TerraMar