Does the sunscreen that protects the oceans really exist?

 In Biodiversité, Marine Biology

This summer it’s the subject everyone is talking about … Is sunscreen harmful to the oceans? How to protect yourself from UV rays without harming marine ecosystems? Can we trust so-called “ocean-friendly” products? We asked our team of scientists to take stock of the studies on the subject, to try to answer as clearly as possible these questions.


Impact of solar creams on the environment


Approximately 25,000 tons of sunscreen would be released each year into the oceans. Several biologists, after noticing the degradation of coral reefs on the most popular places with tourists, were interested in the impact of sunscreens on these ecosystems.

Several studies have therefore been carried out in the laboratory and in the natural environment, although the results of these are more difficult to interpret. Professor Danovaro’s study conducted in 2008 in the Journal of the Environmental Health Perspective conducted in situ in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific oceans and in the Red Sea and in the laboratory marks the beginnings of impact research sunscreen. It demonstrates that some chemical filters contained in UV filtering creams such as ethylhexylmethoxycinnamate, benzophenone-3 (or oxybenzone), 4-methylbenzylidene camphor and butylparaben can stimulate the development of infections that destroy zooxantelle, Microalgae that lives in symbiosis with coral and is necessary for its development. Which causes the coral bleaching, and eventually its disappearance.

coral bleaching

In 2015, biologist Craig Downs, with his team of researchers from government agencies and American universities, in turn published a study in Hawaii in the journal Archives of Environmental Toxicology. He says oxybenzone and other chemicals represent the third threat to coral reefs after climate change and pollution. It can harm living coral in concentrations as small as 62 parts per trillion, the equivalent of a single drop in six Olympic size pools.

This year he went even further in his research. He found traces of sunscreen chemicals in marine mammal tissue, fish, water and sand around several Caribbean islands. New findings include the discovery of an aerosol sunscreen on the beach sand, which is found in the ocean during high tide and is a threat to nesting and turtle babies, as well as Corals, sea urchins and starfish. Repeated exposure to oxybenzone also modifies the DNA of the coral, causing a deadly mutation caused by skeletal growths that stifle it inside. 

This leaves puzzling as to the effects these products could have on us and our children in the long run. Oxybenzone is also officially recognized as an endocrine disruptor, which proves that it is potentially dangerous for humans. Whether it is for your health or that of the oceans, it is therefore important to be vigilant about the products you use.


Make the choice of responsible protections

As you can see, oxybenzone is one of the most environmentally harmful UV filters. Yet it is found in more than 3,500 sunscreen products worldwide.

Our advice is therefore to verify the composition of the product you choose. In general, it is preferable to turn to organic creams without nanoparticles that contain mineral UV filters and which are generally less damaging to the environment than chemical filters. These are natural filters, such as titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, that reflect UV rather than transform them. These protections are recognizable because they leave momentarily white traces on the skin.

Beware of unscrupulous brands that play the lack of regulations on terminology and want to mislead consumers. You will see words like “natural”, “eco-responsible” or “respectful of the oceans” in the name or description of very toxic products. Some brands add minerals or organic ingredients to the formulation to hide the presence of active ingredients that are hazardous to your health and the environment. So beware of greenwashing, or rather bluewashing!

To guide you, we advise you to avoid the following components:


Prohibited components

List of prohibited ingredients in many marine reserves, from site Raw Elements

Our best advice is still to minimize the use of solar products by opting for basic reflexes: avoid exposing yourself to the sun in the hottest hours, stay in the shade or cover yourself with anti-UV tee-shirts , Lycra, hats and other long-sleeved clothing.

Coral has already found its solution: the mucus it produces is much more powerful than all existing sunscreen 50 on the market!

Volunteers in Lycra at the Coral Guardian Komodo Camp, Indonesia



Legislation on the use of these protections

One thing is clear: the use of products containing oxybenzone must be seriously deliberated by the authorities concerned in the islands and areas where coral reef conservation is a major problem.

Some Caribbean island states are considering, for example, banning harmful sunscreens. The Hawaiian senator, Will Espero, for example introduced a bill on January 20, 2017 to ban sunscreens containing certain chemicals like oxybenzone in Hawaii. This project could end in spite of strong resistance from industry.

In Mexico, it is already done. ( bathe in the waters of some natural parks of the southeast, you must prove that you use only biodegradable sunscreen.

The health and environmental challenge associated with sun creams is therefore very real. To solve it, there are solutions beyond marketing campaigns: legislation. France, which possesses one of the largest maritime heritages in the world, distributed among 3 oceans, would be legitimate to launch the movement. And if we started by banning toxic products in one of our beautiful nature reserves? Make Ocean Great Again? The call is launched.

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