Three words essential to an Australian summer are slip, slop, slap. You wouldn’t dream of spending a day at the beach without slathering on the sunscreen to protect your skin from harmful UV rays that cause sunburn and melanoma. But as you’re relaxing in the water, some of that thickly applied lotion (remember, one teaspoon per limb!) is drifting off your body and into the ecosystem. In fact, an estimated 14,000 tons of sunscreen end up in the world’s oceans every year. Is it safe for fish, plants and other marine life?
Not everyone thinks so. Both the US state of Hawaii and the Pacific nation of Palau have banned sunscreens containing several chemicals, including oxybenzone, because of evidence that they damage coral reefs and lead to coral bleaching. Oxybenzone is a common ingredient in many Australian sunscreens, including Banana Boat and Neutrogena, so should you be looking to avoid that chemical for the health of the oceans in which you swim?
It’s not quite that simple, says Dr Allyson O’Brien, vice-chair of the Australian Marine Science Association and a lecturer in marine and environmental biology at Melbourne Uni. “There’s the potential for it to affect the marine environment, but I went back into those results and had a look at the papers that were the catalyst for those bans [in Hawaii and Palau]. There were ecotoxicologies, but we have to be aware that they were done in laboratory environments. I don’t think we really need to be very frightened that if we put sunscreen on and go swimming that it’s going to affect the marine environment,” O’Brien says.
She says that in other parts of the world, the concentration of swimmers around marine life, including reefs, is much higher than it is on Melbourne’s beaches. “I’d be very comfortable saying put some sunscreen on and go for a swim, it’s not going to affect the marine environment,” she says.
But there is a way that oxybenzone can get into the water in much higher concentrations, and that is in sewerage runoff. Oxybenzone is not just found in sunscreen – it’s common in washing powders, lotions and fragrances, too. And when you shower or wash your clothes, those things end up in sewerage, which can find its way into the ocean.
“Many fabrics that we wear will wash off hundreds of thousands of microfibres, and they are all caught up in the marine environment,” says O’Brien. She says these microfibres combine with oxybenzone and other chemicals in our household and body products to form a “cocktail of pollutants”.
To try to protect our marine life, O’Brien says it’s very important that we reduce our carbon footprint, to try to limit global warming, and use less plastic. Choose natural products where possible, including sunscreens with zinc oxide and washing powders and body products without oxybenzone.
And of course, O’Brien says, be careful when you’re swimming to not disturb the creatures that live in the ocean. “Put sunscreen on definitely, but be aware of the animals around you. Don’t touch them or trample them.”