Regardless of what happens at the polls today, the environment got one major win recently: Earlier this year, the western Pacific nation of Palau became the first country to ban the use of certain sunscreens in order to protect its coral reefs. Palau, which is located between the Philippines and Guam, will forbid at least 10 so-called “reef-toxic” ingredients, including oxybenzone, methylparaben, and ethylparaben, beginning in 2020.
“This action by the Republic of Palau is a positive and critical regulatory policy that will protect its coral reefs, as well as welcome tourists to partake in its pristine wilderness,” says Craig Downs, Ph.D., a forensic ecotoxicologist in Virginia and an expert on the subject. Palau’s move is the latest in a series of laws and measures worldwide meant to protect coral from the damaging effects of some sunscreens: Hawaii’s governor signed into law a similar ban this summer, and some parts of Mexico forbid nonbiodegradable sunscreens, too.
Downs explains that the bans help prevent situations like what’s currently happening in Phuket, Thailand, where pollution from litter—including sunscreen—has fueled destruction so bad that parts of the beaches have been shut down to tourists. Plus, notes Downs, chemicals leeching into the water may compound the damage already occurring from global warming. “Some of these chemicals increase the susceptibility of corals and other reef organisms to climate-change events, like an El Ni?o warm-temperature event,” he explains. “It can increase their susceptibility to experience coral bleaching.”
The reason sunscreen can be so dangerous to reefs is because some of the chemicals that wash off into the water interfere with coral reproduction, which has consequences for the entire underwater ecosystem. “For coral, it can cause DNA damage, resulting in ‘messed up’ embryos [or larvae] that do not survive,” says Downs. “But most important, it can be incredibly toxic to juvenile coral. What this means is that if an area is already damaged by hurricanes or other human-induced stress, the next generation of coral—and other organisms like shrimp, crabs, sea urchins, and even fish—can’t settle down at the damaged reef if it is impacted by sunscreen pollution.”
Of course, these regulations aren’t an excuse to skip sun protection—skin cancer is still the most common form of cancer and sun exposure is a major risk factor. A great option is to choose UPF clothing, which can not only provide broad-spectrum protection but also reduce sunscreen pollution by 50 percent compared to wearing a bikini, explains Downs. “For sunscreen, we recommend going with a non-nanotized mineral sunscreen,” Downs says. “But for an individual, wearing UPF clothing that covers up half your body is one of the most powerful contributions to localized conservation you can do.”