Report raises questions about effects of sunscreen on marine life

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Long-held assumptions have held that sunscreen is vital in protecting people from the sun’s dangerous rays, but it can be bad for the environment when it spills into the ocean.

The National Academy of Sciences says it’s not that simple.

A report released on Tuesday says there is a lack of conclusive data on whether chemicals in sunscreens harm marine life. He also warned that environmental concerns as well as the cost and cosmetic unattractiveness of mineral-based sunscreens can negatively impact public health by discouraging their use.

“Existing bans on some UV filters can be seen as a precautionary measure in principle, in that they protect the environment from a potential threat now, rather than waiting for more data,” according to an overview of the report. . “This approach, however, has raised questions about the potential implications for human health resulting from the reduced availability of some widely used UV filter ingredients.”

The findings come as Hawaii moves to toughen laws aimed at preventing the use of chemical-based sunscreens in favor of mineral-based versions, which have a bad reputation for being non-absorbent, greasy and leaving a whitish veil in their wake.

As tourists flock to Hawaii, local governments ban the use of non-mineral sunscreens. But a new study says more research is needed to prove that sunscreens are really that bad. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

A ban on non-mineral sunscreens goes into effect in Hawaii and Maui counties on December 1 and October 1, respectively. Who follows a landmark the statewide ban on oxybenzone and octinoxate-based sunscreens, which went into effect in January 2021 — something the Hawaii legislature is also considering strengthening.

Under the new laws, only mineral sunscreens made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide will be sold on Maui and the Big Island. Violators face a fine of $1,000, which will be used to fund mineral sunscreen dispensers, educational materials and related purposes on the beaches.

As sunscreen-slathered tourists return to Hawaii’s beaches as the coronavirus pandemic recedes, Hawaii County lawmakers passed the bill in response to growing concerns about other chemicals used in screens solar.

“IF we to know we box do Something this strength be good for the environment, and there is a chance this this will be be better for the environment, then we should,” said Holeka Goro Inaba, one of the Hawaii County Council members who introduced the bill.

foggy science

Recent studies have shown that avobenzone and octocrylene, two of the most common chemicals in sunscreens after oxybenzone and octinoxate were banned, harm marine life in the same way.

In fact, chemicals were nearly banned statewide in the 2021 legislative session by a bill introduced by Sen. Mike Gabbard with the help of the Hawaiian Reefs and Oceans Coalition.

Studies show that fish exposed to octocrylene exhibited endocrine disruption, brain malformations in larvae, and reproductive toxicity, according the non-profit Center for Biodiversity.

NAS sunscreen study coverage AUGUST 2022

But the National Academy of Sciences, a nongovernmental organization, says the science on sunscreens is still evolving and current research is lacking.

“Some toxicity studies have exposed organisms to higher levels of UV filters (sunscreen ingredients) than those found in aquatic environments to date or for durations that may or may not occur in the environment,” says The report.

Studies of the effects of sunscreen on ecosystem processes are also largely absent. Instead, ecosystem effects are primarily inferred based on effects on species involved in key community and ecosystem functions, the report adds.

The report also highlights the challenge of studying corals in their complex and variable marine ecosystems, noting that most observations made of coral-sunscreen interactions have taken place in the laboratory.

“We have to think about everything in terms of risk-benefit,” said Dr. Robert Shapiro, a Hilo-based dermatologist who is familiar with the report’s findings. “We know the benefits of sunscreen. But the problem is that we have no idea of ​​the risks.

The NAS committee also recommended that the Environmental Protection Agency conduct a risk assessment on the 17 UV filters found in inorganic (including titanium oxide and zinc oxide) and organic (including zinc oxide) sunscreens. oxybenzone and octinoxate) and 15 organic compounds.

The committee stressed that the recommendations aim to “optimize the identification of sunscreen ingredients” that are effective in preventing skin cancers, acceptable to consumers and safe for the environment, particularly in the face of increasing seawater temperature due to climate change.

Public health concerns

Currently, the Food and Drug Administration generally does not recognize any of the chemicals used in sunscreen products.is safe and effective due to insufficient data to support a conclusion on safety.

The only active ingredients with such a designation are the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, which include mineral sunscreens.

But the FDA is Update in progress its list of ingredients generally recognized as safe and effective. Oxybenzone, octinoxate, avobenzone, and octocrylene are among the chemicals the FDA is investigating to establish a final order of over-the-counter sunscreen.

As for the effectiveness of mineral sunscreens, they are just as good at preventing sunburn and more effective at preventing skin cancer than their chemical counterparts.

Studies show that zinc oxide and titanium dioxide offer a broader spectrum of protection against UVA and UVB rays. They also provide the same 80 minutes of water-resistant UV protection as chemical sunscreens.

zinc oxide, titanium dioxide broad spectrum chart, sunscreen
A graph showing absorption levels. Screenshot/2022

The difference is that mineral sunscreens are thicker and stay on the surface of the skin, while chemical sunscreens are absorbed and are generally less expensive.

Moreover, adds the report, tThere are concerns that consumers are using less sunscreen due to perceived environmental impacts or restrictions on certain UV filters that reduce the availability of consumer-preferred versions.

“We’re trying to get people to use more sunscreen, not less,” Shapiro said.

Inaba, who was aware of the report’s findings, said he did not believe bans on non-mineral sunscreens would prove harmful.

“I disagree that banning chemical sunscreens will prevent or discourage people from wearing sunscreen,” he said. “In do, people strength be After inclined at wear Solar cream knowledge this everything at the shop is sure for the environment.”

Illicit sunscreen in suitcases

Hawaii’s statewide ban appears to have had some success.

Cindi Punihaole, director of the Kahaluu Bay Education Center on the island of Hawaii, has not seen oxybenzone or octinoxate-based sunscreens sold in stores since the ban went into effect. But she saw them on the beaches as recently as last month during routine exchanges from chemical sunscreen to mineral sunscreen made by his organization.

In many cases, beachgoers who bought the sunscreen on the mainland before flying to Hawaii were unaware of the ban. A survey 2019 of 162 California and Florida residents reported that only about a third of respondents said they had heard of the sunscreen ban in Hawaii and few were aware of the law’s provisions.

Hawaiian Airlines Reef Safe Sunscreen
This image, from Hawaiian Airline’s “Protecting Hawaii’s Coral Reefs” webpage, advises the use of locally sourced mineral sunscreens. Screenshot/2022

Some airlines have made an effort to educate incoming tourists. Hawaiian Airlines includes information on sun protection rules for customers on its information page titled “What should I pack for my trip to Hawaii?” and through her Travel Pono video before arrival.

But tourists are not the only ones to blame. Although banned in stores, Hawaii residents can still purchase the banned sunscreens online or out of state.

Clear labeling standards could help provide more reef-safe sunscreen choices. The researchers advise against trusting the terms “reef-safe” and “reef-friendly” because they are largely unregulated, with no concrete standards or specific tests on marine organisms.

Civil Beat’s climate change coverage is supported by the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Environmental Funders Group, the Hawaii Community Foundation’s Marisla Fund, and the Frost Family Foundation.

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