The science of sunscreens: ingredients, environmental impact, and reef-safe alternatives
The development and widespread usage of sunscreen products have significantly helped prevent harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation from the sun reaching our skin, decreasing the risk of skin cancer (Armstrong & Kricker, 2001). However, recent investigations have revealed that certain chemicals found in many sunscreen products might not be as harmless to the environment, particularly coral reefs, as they are to us. This article explores the common ingredients found in sunscreens, their environmental implications, and the safer alternatives for our skin and the ecosystem.
Common ingredients in sunscreens
Sunscreen products can generally be classified into two types: chemical and physical. Chemical sunscreens contain organic compounds such as oxybenzone, avobenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene that absorb UV rays, convert them into heat, and release them from the skin (Antoniou et al., 2008). These ingredients are known for their high sun-protection efficacy.
Physical sunscreens, on the other hand, use inorganic particles such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide that reflect, scatter, and absorb UV radiation, acting as a physical barrier between the sun and our skin (Latha et al., 2013).
Detrimental environmental effects
Several studies have highlighted the damaging effects of some common sunscreen ingredients on marine ecosystems. Oxybenzone and octinoxate are of particular concern. Oxybenzone has been found to cause coral bleaching, hinder coral reproduction, and damage coral DNA (Downs et al., 2016). Similarly, octinoxate also contributes to coral bleaching by enhancing viral infections in symbiotic algae living within corals (Danovaro et al., 2008).
Additionally, both oxybenzone and octinoxate are considered endocrine disruptors, potentially affecting the hormonal balance in marine organisms (Kunz et al., 2006). For these reasons, some regions, like Hawaii and Palau, have already started banning sunscreens containing these ingredients.
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