Could banning sunscreen to help save coral do more harm than good?

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Last year, the Pacific nation of Palau announced that, from 2020, it will ban sunscreens containing certain chemicals linked with coral degradation. Tourists will have offending suncreams confiscated and anyone importing them will face a $1,000 (£800) fine. In addition, Hawaii’s ban on sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate – the two most controversial chemical compounds – comes into force in 2021, and tourists swimming at certain beauty spots in Mexico are already forbidden from wearing non-biodegradable sunscreens.

If it all sounds pretty serious, that’s because it is. Sunscreen is supposed to be an entirely good thing. Having been a holiday essential since we learned about the damaging effects of UVB – and, later, UVA – rays last century, it is the stuff of nostalgia, adventure and longed-for escapes to warmer climes. News that the coconut-scented creams we have been slathering on for protection could be toxic to the environment is as welcome as a seven-day rainy forecast. So where do we stand with it as we head into summer?


A coral reef off Palau

The island of Palau hopes its sunscreen ban will safeguard the future of its coral reefs. Photograph: atese/Getty Images/iStockphoto

First, the basics. Sunscreens fall into two categories. Chemical sunscreens (also counterintuitively known as “organic” sunscreens) absorb harmful UV rays. Mineral sunscreens (also known as physical sunscreens) create a shield-like layer on top of the skin to deflect them.

The bans focus on some chemical sunscreens, with oxybenzone, one of the most commonly used ingredients, attracting particular ire. A 2015 study by Dr Craig Downs, an expert on the impacts of sunscreens on marine life, suggested that the ingredient (an organic compound also known as benzophenone-3) had a toxic effect on coral even at a concentration equivalent to one drop in 6.5 Olympic-size swimming pools.

But not everyone agrees that there is a problem. Dr Emma Meredith, director general of the UK’s Cosmetic, Toiletry and Perfumery Association (CTPA), is “disappointed” by the bans. She cites a lack of scientific evidence linking oxybenzone, octinoxate (a UVB-absorbing compound) and coral reef discolouration, and adds: “Cosmetic ingredients and their safety are kept under constant review by the European Commission and EU member states.”

L’Oréal, which sells both chemical and mineral sunscreens, has worked with the Scientific Centre of Monaco to study the effects of its UV filters on coral bleaching. The report, published this year, states that L’Oréal’s five main organic filters do not negatively affect coral.


Sun protection from the French company Avène

The French company Avène says it has never used oxybenzone in its sun products

“Each sun filter provides a specific type of protection, which is why sunscreen products or daily photo-protection products are usually composed of a combination of filters to guarantee the most adapted protection,” says a spokesperson for the company, which states that all products undergo a strict safety evaluation for humans and the environment before being placed on sale.

But consumers are taking matters into their own hands, with brands reacting in turn. Worldwide, Google searches for “reef-safe sunscreen” have more than quadrupled in the past five years, with brands including Caudalie, Banana Boat and Badger adding “oxybenzone-free” or “reef-friendly” labels to relevant products. Boots Soltan says none of its sunscreens contains oxybenzone or octinoxate, because “we work hard to ensure we source ingredients that protect environments across the globe”.

The French skincare brand Avène has never used oxybenzone, but made a “conscious decision” to cut out octinoxate in 2010, according to Marine Dumas, its international product manager for suncare. The brand has now developed a patented UV filter system as part of its Skin Protect, Ocean Respect commitment, and partnered with Pur Projet on a socio-environmental project for the regeneration of corals in Indonesia. Dumas welcomes Hawaii and Palau’s bans. “This will force cosmetic companies that still use these sun filters to find other solutions,” she says.

Nevertheless, there are concerns over what chemical sunscreens do to us aside from protect. Many “clean beauty” advocates – those who avoid products containing suspected toxins – already boycott chemical sunscreens due to concerns that they may be absorbed into the body. A recent study, published in JAMA, the Journal of the American Medical Association, found that sunscreen chemicals can seep into your bloodstream after just 24 hours of use, although there is no data yet on whether or not they have a negative effect. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has called for further testing to determine the ingredients’ safety for repeated use, although it urges consumers to continue using sunscreens to protect themselves.


Badger’s Broad Spectrum sunscreen lotion

Badger’s Broad Spectrum sunscreen lotion contains zinc oxide

At the online beauty seller Look Fantastic, searches for mineral sunscreens have risen 314% year on year. So should we all just switch to mineral sunscreens? There are fors and againsts; not all to do with concerns about the environment or safety.

One advantage of chemical over mineral sunscreens is their ability to sink invisibly into the skin and to be formulated into thinner, less greasy creams and gels. Mineral particles are renowned for leaving a tell-tale, chalky finish to the skin, and often turn milky upon contact with water or sweat, making them less popular in water-resistant sunscreens. Formulas have improved over recent years, but there are still entire Reddit threads devoted to finding mineral products that won’t leave white marks, especially on darker skin tones.

Inevitably, mineral filters come with their own environmental controversies. Many formulas use nanoparticles of zinc oxide or titanium oxide, which some studies suggest could themselves damage coral and be absorbed by other marine life. Consequently, brands including Ren and Coola have developed “non-nano” sunscreens (using particles larger than 100 nanometres).


Boots Soltan says none of its sunscreens contain oxybenzone or octinoxate

Boots Soltan says none of its sunscreens contain oxybenzone or octinoxate

Starting to feel like you need a chemistry degree to keep up? That is the danger. A lack of clarity around sun protection that could potentially stop people using it is the last thing health authorities – or the rest of us – need when the stakes are so high. A 2018 report from Cancer Research UK highlighted UV radiation as the third biggest contributor to cancer cases in the UK, while a 2015 survey of 2,000 British adults by the Royal Pharmaceutical Society found that only 8% knew the true meaning of the SPF rating.

“CTPA is always concerned that unfounded claims about the safety and efficacy of sun protection products actually undermine sun protection products in general,” says Meredith. “This could have serious health implications if consumers choose to avoid the use of any sunscreen because confidence in them has been diminished.”

Prof Jörg Wiedenmann, head of the Coral Reef Laboratory at the University of Southampton, says comparative studies are needed “to show that the alternatives to [oxybenzone and octinoxate] have a less damaging effect on coral, but still protect humans equally well”. In other words, protecting the environment from sunscreen is undeniably important, but protecting ourselves from the sun can’t fall by the wayside.

He adds that while oxybenzone does appear to affect coral reefs, it is far from the greatest threat they face.

“The degradation of coral reefs resulting from coral bleaching is a direct effect of temperature anomalies caused by climate change. Sunscreen compounds may contribute to the background stress on corals, but so do other factors, such as nutrient pollution and overfishing, which are having a far greater effect. Sometimes there is a tendency to panic, and a danger that people will come to the wrong conclusions and take focus away from the real difficulties.”


The vegan option: Ren’s Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30

The vegan option: Ren’s Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30

The most important thing is to wear sunscreen, whatever you do. If you are sticking to chemical sunscreens but want to avoid oxybenzone, products by Avène (from £15) and Boots Soltan (from £3.50) use alternative organic filters. Or if you are headed to a reef and want to try a non-nano mineral formula, Badger’s Baby Chamomile & Calendula Zinc Oxide Sunscreen (£16.99) fits the bill, while Ren’s Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30 (£30) is vegan, non-nano and comes in a tube made with recycled plastic, combining all of your eco quests in one.

Wiedenmann points out that, in places such as Hawaii, enclosed bays in which a lot of people swim near coral are at the greatest risk, so precautions make sense. What about the rest of us? “If I was near a reef, I’d avoid using a sunscreen with oxybenzone,” he says. “But if I was in the UK, in my back garden? I don’t think I’d be too worried.”