Is Sunscreen Killing the Coral Reef?
(Sunscreen part 2 of 3)
What's the first thing you look for when shopping for suntan lotion? Most people look for the SPF number on the front of the bottle. SPF stands for "Sun Protection Factor." The idea behind the number is simple. If you would burn by being in the sun for one minute, with SPF 30 sunscreen on, it would take 30 minutes.
But there's more. The intensity of the sun varies depending on time of day, day of the year, the altitude you're at and even how light or dark your skin already is. SPF doesn't just refer to time, but to energy. You'll absorb more radiation in the midday sun than early morning or late evening. The sunscreen that protected you for two hours in the morning, may only last 30 minutes at noon.
Here's what you should do. The longer you plan on staying out, the higher the "broad spectrum" SPF factor you should use to protect your skin. Of course there are limits. Some sunscreens claim to have an SPF of 70, 80 or even 100. But the FDA has said there is no evidence that sunscreens labeled higher than 50 provide any significant additional protection, and they may be providing a false sense of security to consumers. Companies can label their products higher than SPF 50, but you shouldn't waste your money on them.
Sunscreen makers are also going to have to drop claims of being "waterproof," "sweatproof" or that they provide "sunblock." It seems that some "waterproof" products may be washed off after only a few minutes of being in the water. The FDA has called those claims misleading.
Now companies will have to indicate if they are "water resistant" in 40 to 80 minute increments. Products that don't have any level of water resistance will have to carry a warning, advising people to use a water resistant product if they plan on being in the water or sweating.
Now for the problem with the reef. In April of 2008, the Environmental Health Perspectives Journal released an article titled, "Bleached, But Not by the Sun: Sunscreen Linked to Coral Damage." Researchers found that traditional sunscreens may be threatening up to 10 percent of coral reefs.
Here's what happens. There's an algae that lives inside reef-building coral species. (The algae is called zooxanthellae.) Four common ingredients in sunscreens wake up dormant viruses that are found inside that algae. The viruses multiply and eventually the algae hosts explode, spilling viruses out where they infect neighboring coral.
Those algae hosts feed the coral. When they explode and die, the coral "bleaches" turns white- and dies shortly afterward. The ingredients that concern researchers are paraben, cinnamate, benzophenone, and a camphor derivative. Unfortunately those ingredients are found in the majority of sunscreen products currently being marketed.
Researchers estimate there are 4,000 to 6,000 metric tons of sunscreen washing off swimmers annually in oceans worldwide. That's a very small amount when compared with the size of the ocean, but the problem is it's highly concentrated in places where tourists visit. That's why efforts need to be made to limit concentrations, especially in heavily trafficked areas.
To deal with the problem, some sunscreen manufacturers have started using Zinc Oxide to block the UVA and UVB rays. But that's not a reasonable solution either. When you look at the Material Safety Data Sheet for zinc oxide it says, "Very toxic to aquatic organisms, may cause long term adverse effects in the aquatic environment."
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