There are two kinds of sunscreen ingredients on the market which work in different ways. Physical sunscreens, also called mineral sunscreens block or reflect both UVA and UVB rays. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are the two most common physical sunscreen ingredients.
Chemical sunscreens, which typically include oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate as ingredients absorb and reduce UV rays’ ability to penetrate the skin. Some sunscreen formulas include both mineral and chemical sunscreen active ingredients.
Hawaii has banned sunscreen containing the active ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate that encompass most of the major brands. The reason for this law which goes into effect in 2021 was recent research confirming that the lotion we slather on to protect our skin can also do grave harm to the world’s coral reefs.
The Hawaiian ban was based on a 2016 study by Craig Downs and colleagues at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, which showed that these two chemicals were to blame for slowing coral growth and increasing the rate of coral bleaching. Bleaching happens when conditions like temperature change so dramatically that corals turn completely white and the symbiotic algae living in their tissues flee their homes.
According to marine ecology researcher Cinzia Corinaldesi, who has studied the impact of sunscreens on coral reefs since 2003, the problem is that “unfortunately, oxybenzone is not the only harmful ingredient of sunscreens.” Other UV filters, including zinc oxide, are proving to have an impact on coral bleaching and the ban does nothing to prevent these.
But given the evidence, there has been a push in recent years for “reef-friendly” alternatives. While these options, typically in the form of mineral sunscreens, have been considered safer, more environmentally friendly in the media, some new research has suggested that’s not the case. Since 2009, Corinaldesi has been putting these “reef-friendly” ingredients to the test. She has proved, along with other researchers, that some mineral sunscreens and those marketed as “eco-friendly” are no safer for coral reefs than chemical ones.
Confirming previous research, Corinaldesi and her team found in a newly published study, Impact of inorganic UV filters contained in sunscreen products on tropical stony corals which demonstrates that zinc oxide causes severe coral bleaching, damaging hard corals and their symbiotic algae. “Our studies indicate that zinc oxide nanoparticles are very harmful for marine organisms, whereas titanium dioxide with surface coatings and metal doping, have a much lower impact,” she says. “Unfortunately, despite several cosmetic products and sunscreens available in the market are defined ‘reef-safe’ or ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘biodegradable,’ they are not so, and indeed lack specific tests on marine organisms.”
Non-nano zinc oxide and non-nano titanium dioxide are the only coral-safe sunscreen filters and they are safe and effective in blocking UV rays. Sunscreens formulated with non-nano particles will clearly state "non-nano zinc oxide and/or non-nano titanium dioxide on the products active ingredient list".
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