Synthetic UV filters are commonly found in many mainstream sun creams. However, the world is now waking up to the fact that their impact on delicate marine ecosystems is a huge and overlooked danger. When we wash sun creams off our bodies, they make their way into our rivers and oceans, subsequently posing a significant threat to marine life.
In fact, Greenpeace recently reported that around 14,000 tonnes of sun cream enters the oceans every year. Synthetic UV filters such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, are widely used in traditional sunscreens due to their ability to absorb or reflect harmful ultraviolet (UV) radiation. Even in small concentrations, these chemicals can have a profound impact on underwater ecosystems.
If you’ve read our blog Do UV Filters Increase Cancer Risk you’ll know how easily these chemicals are absorbed into our skin. Therefore we should consider how easily they can then infiltrate delicate sea creatures and their habitats.
So, how exactly are these chemicals disrupting our fragile underwater ecosystems?
Toxicity to Marine Organisms
Synthetic UV filters not only harm coral reefs but also pose a threat to other marine organisms. Studies have shown that oxybenzone and octinoxate can accumulate in fish, sea turtles, and other marine species, leading to various health issues. These chemicals can disrupt hormone function, impair reproductive processes, and even cause genetic mutations. Additionally, synthetic UV filters have been found to accumulate in the tissues of marine mammals.
“Oxybenzone, which is just one of the sunscreen contaminants, has a major toxicological effect on plants and algae,” says Craig Downs, PhD, executive director of the non-profit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Virginia, USA,
“Damage to those plants puts more stress on the animals that depend on them.” Downs has also done research showing that the sunscreen ingredient octocrylene may generate the chemical benzophenone, a compound that’s a carcinogen and may have hormone-disrupting effects. “Octocrylene is bad for fish, corals, and other invertebrates.” He said.
Disruption to Marine Food Chains
Marine life relies on a complex network of interconnected food chains to thrive. The negative impact of synthetic UV filters can extend throughout these chains, affecting organisms at different levels. Zooplankton, essential for the survival of numerous marine species, can be harmed by synthetic UV filters, leading to disrupted ecosystems and potential population declines. The repercussions of this disruption can be felt throughout the entire marine food web.
Impact on Coral Reefs
Coral reefs are amongst the planet’s most diverse and productive ecosystems, providing habitat and shelter to countless marine species. However, there is increasing alarm at the rising levels of coral bleaching, a devastating phenomenon that disrupts the delicate balance of these vibrant underwater communities. More than 90% of the corals surveyed along the Great Barrier Reef this year were bleached, according to a report published by Australian government scientists.
It has been widely thought that coral bleaching was purely a result of climate change. However, research has revealed an even more worrying contribution to this damage. A team of international scientists carried out a study in 2016 which found that a common chemical in many sunscreen lotions and cosmetics is highly toxic to juvenile corals and other marine life. Oxybenzone, or BP-3, a commonly used UV filter (found in more than 3500 skincare products) has been found entering the environment both through wastewater effluent and directly from swimmers wearing sunscreens.
Research suggests that these UV filters cause coral bleaching by triggering viral infections, inhibiting coral growth, and damaging the coral’s DNA.
Alternatives for a Sustainable Future
At The Green Woman, we chose natural mineral-based UV filters like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide to create Freedom sun cream. These ingredients provide effective protection from the sun's rays without causing harm to marine life.
By choosing reef-safe mineral sunscreens, consumers can actively contribute to the preservation of coral reefs and marine ecosystems.
Ready to learn more?
Our blog Do UV Filters Increase Cancer Risk written in partnership with Breast Cancer UK, talks about how synthetic UV filters are absorbed into our skin and how they can harm us.