Will Most Sunscreens Be Eventually Banned?

sunscreens

Story at-a-glance -

  • The primary function of oxybenzone (benzophenone-3), commonly found in chemical sunscreen products, is to prevent your skin from absorbing ultraviolet light; it has weak estrogenic and powerful antiadrenergic effects
  • Oxybenzone is linked to deaths of coral reefs that provide a home to 25 percent of all marine life across the world and that shelter coastlines from erosion from ocean waves and currents
  • Working with supporters, Hawaii's democratic state senator Will Espero has proposed a bill that would ban the sale of products using oxybenzone to protect the reefs and tourism in Hawaii
  • All sunscreen eventually reaches the waterways as users shower and chemicals enter the sewer system; physical barriers, such as clothing, zinc oxide or titanium dioxide products (not nanoparticle products) are safer

By Dr. Mercola

Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3)1 is one of the most common ingredients found in sunscreen products. Its primary function is to prevent your skin from absorbing ultraviolet (UV) light. Since the chemical is cost effective and increases the sunblock protection in a sunscreen product, it can be found in nearly 3,500 brands of sunscreen worldwide.2

If you reapply the product every two hours as directed, an average day at the beach may mean you are exposed to 2 to 4 ounces of a product containing chemicals known to disrupt human hormones.3 Studies have also suggested oxybenzone is a hormone disruptor in marine creatures.4

Although much media attention is focused on oxybenzone, other chemicals in sunscreens trigger damage to human health and the environment. These include octinoxate, which has demonstrated hormone disruption in animals and behavioral alterations, homosalate, which is unstable and breaks down in the sun, and avobenzone that may damage sperm.5

As you swim, sunscreen is released into the water, necessitating reapplication. However, this release also dumps up to 14,000 metric tons of product into coral reef areas each year.6 Much of the sunscreen contains oxybenzone that may damage marine life at levels as low as 62 drops per trillion, or the equivalent of one drop in 6.5 Olympic-sized swimming pools of water.7

In an effort to protect the coral reefs surrounding the Hawaiian Islands, democratic state senator for Hawaii’s 19th District, Will Espero, has introduced legislation that would ban the use of sunscreen that contains oxybenzone on the Islands in an effort to protect the surrounding coral reefs.8

How Sunscreen Works

Sunscreen use has risen dramatically in the past decade as the medical community began warning against sunburn and sun exposure to reduce the risk of skin cancer.9 This created a growing billion-dollar sunscreen industry. According to industry analysts, the global market for sun care products is projected to hit $11.1 billion by 2020.10

Sunscreen products work one of two ways to protect your skin from UV rays from the sun. The first is a mechanical barrier used by mineral products that create a physical barrier to protect your skin. The two most common are titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. In the past, these products were a thick white paste. However, in response to consumer demand for more visually pleasing products, manufacturers have turned to using nanoparticles of the same chemicals.

While much of the danger to humans is inhalation of these nanoparticles,11 which is why spray-on products are best avoided, these nanoparticles have also been shown to cause ecological and aquatic damage after being released into the environment.12 The second form of sunscreen product, chemical filters, hold greater potential for harm to the environment and human health.

A chemical filter works by undergoing a chemical reaction after it is absorbed into your skin,13 in the presence of UV light and heat. This means it gradually loses protective properties and requires reapplication every two to three hours.14  These sunscreens also include other ingredients meant to increase the penetration of the chemicals into your skin, called "penetration enhancers."15

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) reports that oxybenzone, one of the most "worrisome" chemicals found in sunscreen, is in 65 percent of sunscreen products on the market.16 Laboratory testing has demonstrated this chemical causes allergic skin reactions, and has weak estrogenic and powerful antiandrogenic effects in the body. A Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report found oxybenzone in more than 96 percent of people living in the U.S.17

Data collected from adolescents reveal young boys with higher levels of oxybenzone had lower levels of testosterone.18 EWG gives oxybenzone a hazard score of 8 out of 10 in humans based on skin penetration, widespread use and links with skin allergies and hormone disruption.19

Oxybenzone: Sunscreen Chemical Damages Coral Reefs

The potential damage by oxybenzone is not limited to human health. Research has associated this chemical with death and damage to the vibrant coral reefs off the coasts of Hawaii and the Virgin Islands.20 An international team21 led by Craig Downs, Ph.D., forensic ecotoxicologist22 and executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, found the highest concentrations of oxybenzone along reefs popular with tourists in the Caribbean and along Hawaii's coastline.

Downs explained the concentration of oxybenzone illuminates why they didn't observe a healthy number of baby coral in the area, as oxybenzone is fatal to young coral and alters the DNA of adults, making them more prone to lethal bleaching and death. Even small amounts of the chemical have been shown to alter DNA in a baby coral, causing it to encase itself in its skeleton and die.

Oxybenzone also creates a situation in which the coral starves. Most reef building coral have a symbiotic relationship with tiny algae. The algae supply sugar for energy to the coral and the coral provides a sheltered home and carbon dioxide from metabolism to the algae.23 When the algae are poisoned by oxybenzone, the coral expel them and then die from lack of nutrients.

This means tourists snorkeling along the coral reefs for an up close and personal experience with one of nature's truly amazing and unique sights may well be depositing chemicals during their swim that are killing the reefs. In an effort to fight for the health of the local environment, Espero and his team put together a bill to ban the sale of sunscreen containing oxybenzone in Hawaii.

The irony is that damage to the environment by oxybenzone is more potent in sunny environments, and the sunnier the area the more sunscreen tourists use each day.24

As you may expect, this bill is being met with resistance by cosmetic companies as they predict a ban would have a large negative impact on their immediate revenue. However, while the bill was not successful in 2017, Espero and his supporters plan to continue to push for a ban on the sale of sunscreen with oxybenzone in Hawaii. If passed, it is likely other states will follow suit.25

Cosmetic Companies Concerned With Financial Losses

In this short news video, you'll see the extent of the damage to the coral reef along the coastline of the big island in Hawaii and hear from Robert Richmond, Ph.D., biologist, who studies the effect of oxybenzone on marine life. Large cosmetic companies and their trade associations blocked the legislation during the current state legislative calendar, claiming the case against oxybenzone is not strong enough to warrant impacting the financial gain of their companies. 

A group representing nearly 90 percent of the personal care product industry commented,26 "There is no conclusive, scientific evidence that sunscreen ingredients negatively impact coral reefs at levels that have been detected in tourist areas." Richmond strongly disagrees with this opinion.

Levels found in the waters off the coasts of Hawaii and the Virgin Islands are known to have a biological impact on coral. While personal care product companies are concerned over a loss of sales, Espero argues that reef-friendly sunscreen is already on the market, so a ban of the more dangerous products should not hurt the market.27 

In November 2015, a group from the European Union attempted a similar ban but the push has stalled.28 It is anticipated that should the ban in Hawaii pass, it could give the ban in Europe the support needed to pass and protect more marine and human life. Any bill that included oxybenzone-related regulation has met with resistance by the Consumer Protection and Commerce Committee in the House29 that regulates trade, business and other matters pertinent to consumer protection or protection of commerce and industry in the state.30

Although using sunscreen with oxybenzone at the beach has a significant risk of washing off into the ocean water, it is important to remember that anytime sunscreen is used and the wearer showers, the chemicals wind up in the sewer system and eventually into the waterways.31 As Hawaii fights to protect their coral reefs locally, it is important to note that the sunscreen you use in the Midwest may have an impact on the health of coral reefs as the chemicals wash downstream into the ocean waters.

Coral Reefs Protect the Coastline From Damaging Storms and More

Although coral reefs are beautiful, they also serve a unique and compelling purpose for the protection of the coastline. They are a priceless part of the marine ecosystem as they provide a habitat for fish and other sea creatures and help absorb carbon dioxide from the environment and protect coastal cities. Nearly 25 percent of all marine life on the planet can be found in the coral reefs around the world.32

Together the marine plants and animals form an ecosystem that support marine biodiversity, performing critically important functions.33 As all ecosystems are complex and interconnected, the loss of biodiversity in marine life over the past decades has significantly impacted basic food sources for marine animals and ultimately humans.

The physical framework of coral reefs serves as a mechanical buffer, protecting the coastline from ocean waves and currents. Passing over the reefs, the energy in ocean waves may be reduced by as much as 90 percent.34 This protects the coastline from erosion and loss of more delicate plant life, including mangroves, seagrass beds and the destruction of coastal communities.

The reefs perform a number of other functions as well.35 They change molecular nitrogen in the water and convert it to products marine life are able to use. They supply sediment that washes up on shore, helping to line the coastline with white sand. The skeletons of the coral can provide scientists with historical accounts of environmental conditions and can be used as a tool to measure the impact of environmental disturbances.

The value of the coral reefs along the U.S. coastlines has been set between $30 and $172 billion each year as the areas provide food, shoreline protection, increased tourism and even medicines.36 Marine organisms found along the reefs are rich in compounds they use to protect themselves from predators, but which scientists have used in medicines, including cancer agents, anti-inflammatories, anticoagulants and bone grafts.37

These reefs may also form the backbone of local economies, funneling tourist dollars into restaurants, hotels, diving equipment, boats and entertainment facilities. These may be sustainable when tourists are monitored to reduce damage to the local environment through damage to the reefs. In 2001, it was estimated the commercial value to U.S. fisheries from the reefs topped $100 million each year.38

Using Chemical Sunscreens May Increase Your Risk of Disease

While protecting the coral reefs is an important responsibility as they protect our coastline and marine wildlife, chemical sunscreens also affect your health.  Oxybenzone is a known hormone disruptor, acting like estrogen in the body, altering sperm production in men and contributing to the development of endometriosis in women.39

A comparison of daily use of sunscreen against physical barriers, such as wearing long sleeves and a hat or seeking shade, was evaluated in respect to the development of two of the more common types of skin cancer, basal cell carcinoma (BCC) and cutaneous squamous cell carcinoma (cSCC). Over a period of 4.5 years and 1,600 Australian participants, the researchers found no difference in the rate of development of these types of skin cancer.40

I don't recommend spending enough time in the sun to be burned, but a one-size-fits-all recommendation to apply sunscreen daily may have a higher risk profile than anticipated. Some sunscreens may increase your risk of skin cancer as they contain retinyl palmitate, a form of vitamin A that has been found to promote the development of skin tumors41 when applied topically and exposed to the sun.42 Despite this knowledge, there are no warning labels to alert consumers of this potential danger.

It is important to remember the SPF rating on sunscreen refers to protection against UVB light, which are the rays within the light spectrum that allow your body to produce vitamin D. However, the rating doesn't indicate protection against UVA rays linked with skin damage and cancer. Blocking the ability of your body to produce vitamin D increases your risk of cancers. One study found vitamin D levels above 40 ng/mL are associated with a more than 65 percent lower risk of cancer. The researchers commented:43

"We found a clear association between 25(OH)D [vitamin D] serum concentration and cancer risk, according to multiple types of analyses. These results suggest the importance of vitamin D for the prevention of cancer. Women with 25(OH)D concentrations ≥40 ng/ml had a significantly lower risk of cancer (~70 [percent]) compared to women with concentrations <20 ng/ml."

Naturally Enjoy Sensible Sun Exposure

Sensible sun exposure is important to your body's ability to produce vitamin D and for a number of other functions, including improving mental health,44 preventing chronic illnesses, improving cardiovascular health45 and reducing your risk of dying from heart disease or stroke.46

As there are thousands of different sunscreen products on the market, it may seem challenging to find one without hormone disruptors that is safe for pregnant women and children and that does not have carcinogenic potential. The worst products contain synthetic fragrances, retinyl palmitate and oxybenzones, and are created with nanoparticles. Safe choices are lotions or creams with zinc oxide, as it is stable in the sun and provides the best protection against UVA rays.47

It is important to ensure the product does not contain nanoparticles and protects against both UVA and UVB rays. Although not harmful, the higher SPF rating may engender a false sense of security, resulting in staying longer in the sun without adequate UVA protection. For more tips on sensible sun exposure, see my previous article, "Is Your Sunscreen Doing More Harm Than Good?"

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