Sunscreen Salvation

The bad news is that a chemical used in a broad array of sunscreen products is fatally damaging coral reefs, arguably the most biologically productive ecosystems on the planet.

The good news is there are readily available alternatives that with sufficient cooperation from manufacturers and consumers could diminish the sunscreen damage virtually overnight.

Toxic sunscreen residues washing off swimmers are hardly the only causative factors ravaging coral reefs around the world. Nevertheless, recent research has incriminated oxybenzone, an active synthetic chemical ingredient used in many popular lotions to filter out the sun's ultra-violet rays. It is contained in more than 3500 sunscreen products, dominating over half the market and wreaks havoc even in minute concentrations (as low as two parts per trillion).

Dr. Craig Downs of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratories in Clifford, Va. is the lead author of the recent study incriminating oxybenzone. He found that this synthetic chemical in sunscreens that swimmers routinely shed into surrounding waters kills young corals and destroys the reproductive capacity of adult ones.

That is great cause for concern, given that bountiful coral reefs are globally nurseries to fisheries worth an estimated $5.7 billion annually and are sources of $9.6 billion a year in tourism revenues. Adding to the worry, 60 percent of corals worldwide are rated in bad shape with untreated sewage, global warming, overfishing, and tourist scavenging as well as sunscreens among the culprits. In the Caribbean, which used to boast some of the most spectacular formations, 80 percent of the corals are gone. It is there that tourism is the economic cornerstone and thus, chemical sunscreen residues are suspected of being a major causative factor.

Some Caribbean Island states are belatedly contemplating banning the harmful sunscreens. They should have taken their cue from the European Union, which has ordered oxybenzone use to be phased out for environmental reasons.

So what are the alternatives that could get rid of the sunscreen coral scourge practically overnight?

Ideally, the most surefire way is not to use sunscreen at all. Instead, rely on a hat, umbrella, sun glasses, long-sleeved shirts, sun-protective swim wear, and avoid exposure during midday hours when the solar ultraviolet rays are the most intense.

If sunscreen must be used, resort to products that are biodegradable with such plant-based ingredients as raspberry seed oil and beeswax. There are numerous sunscreen products formulated with zinc oxide that is considered safe to marine life. Although it is not biodegradable, the zinc oxide residue released by swimmers sinks to the ocean floor where it is absorbed in the silt.

Oxybenzone is so well-established in the marketplace that the Personal Care Product Association representing the sunscreen industry is at least initially resisting the latest science. After all, it costs money to reformulate the chemical sunscreens into mineral or natural alternatives. In addition, natural variations tend to be more expensive for manufacturers to produce and consumer to purchase.

Whatever the increased tab might be, it is a small price to pay for contributing to survival of coral reefs and their invaluable niche in the global ecosystem. Hopefully, all segments of society will see it that way -- and soon.