Protecting our skin and the planet

We all know that applying sunscreen to our skin will protect us from the sun’s harmful rays but did you know that your choice of sunscreen may actually help the planet? Scientists now recognize that certain chemicals found in popular sunscreens are causing damage to one of the most remarkable natural environments on earth, the coral reef.

Corals are tiny invertebrate animals (animals that have no backbone) that live in colonies under the ocean.  They take calcium from the ocean and use it to build a hard structure that protects it and helps it grow. Over hundreds of years these structures have formed coral reefs all over the world’s oceans, with the biggest being found in the clear, shallow waters of the tropics. The largest, of these, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef is more than 2,400 kilometres long!

While coral reefs appear as solid immovable structures they are actually teeming with life. It is thought that around one quarter of all ocean species depend upon reefs for their food and shelter. This dependence is even more remarkable when you consider that only two per cent of the ocean floor is covered by these marine ecosystems. These reefs also directly benefit humans, protecting shorelines, and providing, food, medicines, and even tourism jobs.

Unfortunately like any natural environment the coral reef is a fragile ecosystem. Since 2015 one fifth of the world’s coral reefs have died off and while increased ocean temperatures due to global warming is considered the biggest threat to them there is growing evidence that chemicals in some sunscreens may also be contributing to the damage.

Researchers have found that the chemicals oxybenzone and oxtinoxate can kill developing coral, damage its DNA and increase bleaching, a stress reaction where the coral turns white in response to changes in the environment.  Bleaching is particularly harmful as coral rejects the algae that lives within it and is crucial to its health. While the reef continues to live it will starve after bleaching.

Each year about 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in our oceans. 

Luckily lawmakers around the world have recognized the dangers these chemicals can pose and are making changes. Hawaii recently became the first state in the United States of America to ban selling or using sunscreens that contain the harmful chemicals.

Researchers are quick to point out that they are not recommending that swimmers stop wearing sunscreen but rather that they are careful to buy those that are not harmful to the ocean. Swimmers and sunbathers can also cover up with long sleeve shirts and hats to reduce exposure to the sun.

Your choice of sun protection could benefit both you and the world’s beautiful coral reefs.

Article originally published in Brainspace Magazine Spring 2019

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