Coalition Combating Sunscreens that Damage V.I. Corals

This is the first of two stories about the efforts of the Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation, known as CORE, to save the reefs in the Virgin Islands.

Frank Cummings
Frank Cummings

Whenever Frank Cumming, president of CORE, goes out into the community to make a presentation about lionfish, he is quick to bring up another concern that might turn out to be an even greater threat to coral reefs – sunscreens containing toxic chemicals.

Since 2015, mounting evidence has shown that sunscreens containing oxybenzone and several other chemicals are damaging coral by affecting its DNA and inhibiting the corals’ ability to reproduce.

A 14-minute film, “Reefs at Risk,” graphically outlines the scope of the problem. It can be found here or here.

Now Cummings, who serves as president of the Caribbean Oceanic Restoration and Education Foundation, commonly known as CORE, is working with a group of scientists, environmentalists, and community organizations to educate the public about the dangers of personal care products that contain these chemicals.

A still from the film 'Reef at Risk' shows damage from chemical sunscreens.
A still from the film ‘Reef at Risk’ shows damage from chemical sunscreens.

One of the first people to sound the alarm about the use of chemical sunscreens was Craig Downs, a molecular biologist who got the idea for his investigation while visiting St. John.

“Downs was at the beach, and he saw a visible sheen on the water he suspected was sunscreen. He wondered if it was affecting the coral,” said Cummings.

Downs started testing the waters in the Virgin Islands and Hawaii, taking samples near popular beaches and comparing them to samples taken in more remote areas. What he found was devastating.

According to the news release published in 2015 by Downs’ company Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, “The study discovered that arguably the lowest concentration to see a toxicity effect was as low as 62 parts per trillion – equivalent to a drop of water in six-and-a-half Olympic-size swimming pools. The highest concentration of oxybenzone was seen in Trunk Bay in the Virgin Islands National Park at 1.4 parts per million” – more than 22,000 times the lowest toxicity level.

The results of Downs’ research were so disturbing that in July, Hawaii passed legislation to ban the sale of sunscreen containing some of these chemicals beginning in 2021.

Non-toxic sunscreens are on display at Chelsea Drugstore on St. John.
Non-toxic sunscreens are on display at Chelsea Drugstore on St. John.

In October, Palau, the Pacific Ocean archipelago, became the first nation to ban reef-toxic sunscreens, effecive in 2021. In February, the Key West City Commission voted unanimously to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate; that law also goes into effect in 2021. Lawmakers in these jurisdictions agreed to give local retail outlets two years to restock their shelves with reef-safe alternatives.

The communities that have passed laws outlawing these chemicals in sunscreen are not waiting for national or worldwide recognition of the dangers.

“The U.S. market size for sun-care products [lotions, sprays, and sticks] was estimated to be $1.95 billion in 2016,” according to one market study.

Cummings doesn’t believe companies like L’Oréal and Johnson & Johnson will completely retool their products to make them truly reef-safe in time to prevent catastrophic damage. The problem is compounded by the fact that so few studies have been done to determine which chemicals cause damage. According to Downs, as many as 82,000 chemicals used in personal care products may be polluting marine environments.

However, Cummings and the members of the newly-formed Virgin Islands Reef and Ocean Coalition are asking individuals to make better choices when seeking protection from damaging rays from the sun.

“The change has to be consumer-driven,” he said.

Their recommendation is to wear sun-protection clothing – dive skins or rash guards in the water, and SPF-50 shirts on land, for example.

The next best choice is to use sunscreens containing metals – zinc oxide or titanium oxide – as opposed to chemical blocks such as oxybenzone, octinoxate, and other potentially hazardous ingredients including benzophenone-3, avobenzone octisalate, octocrylene, and homosalate.

These chemical sun blocks form soluble colorless crystals to provide protection from harmful UV rays. Some of them have been proved to be endocrine disruptors that affect the reproductive cycle of corals and other species of marine life. Downs suspects they may possibly affect reproductive functions in humans as well.

Products containing the metals are considered safer.

“The research shows that zinc is inert; it sits on our outer layer of dead skin and reflects the sun off of it,” Cummings said.

Sunscreens with zinc oxide and titanium oxide are now more widely available, but Cummings said some of the metal sun blocks can be harmful if they contain nano-particles. He urges consumers to read the labels of their sunscreens carefully.

Cummings said the time to take action is now. Researchers believe up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter waters with nearby coral reefs every year.

According to the film “Reefs at Risk” states that 85 percent of the reefs in the Caribbean have been damaged by factors including rising temperatures, storms, and ocean acidification. One scientist in the film says, “Although the problems may seem overwhelming, if we can minimize local stressors, we give corals a far greater capacity to respond, adapt, and survive.”

Next: CORE continues it’s battle against invasive lionfish.