July 8, 2018

Is sunscreen killing off Coral Reef?

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Contributed by Dr. Jennifer Lee, Board-certified Dermatologist

Hawaii just passed a state law banning the sale of sunscreens containing the ingredients Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, making the state the first in the world to pass such a bill. The law goes into effect January 1, 2021 and is an effort to combat harmful effects from these ingredients on coral reef. Many of the inner reefs of Hawaii’s popular bays have died off due to years of heavy tourism.

In 2015, a study of coral reefs in Hawaii, the U.S. Virgin Islands and Israel found Oxybenzone and Octinoxate, two common sunscreen ingredients, damaged coral and affected the development of fish and other wildlife. It was estimated that approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotions get washed off and end up in coral reefs around the world each year.

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The sunscreen ingredients were concluded to cause damage and death in coral (“coral bleaching”) when they’re washed off the skin or disposed into wastewater treatment plants and then deposited into water. Coral reef protect coastlines from waves and also provide habitat for fish and other aquatic life. The report showed Oxybenzone is toxic to the juvenile form of corals and may also disrupt the symbiotic relationship between coral and algae, thus negatively affecting the health of the marine ecosystem.

photo-1517267075966-848c4c4cd883However, some opponents to this bill question the validity of the 2015 study and wonder if it was accurate or representative. The Hawaii Medical Association claim there is lack of peer-reviewed evidence that sunscreen is the cause of coral damage. There are other factors which may be contributing to coral reef death including global warming, overfishing, industrial pollution and runoff. There is also concern that banning these sunscreen ingredients could lead Hawaiian residents and tourists to use less of sunscreen and thus increase their risk of skin cancer. Skin cancer rates in Hawaii are 30% higher than the national average.

So- what sunscreen ingredients should you look for? If you’d like to avoid chemical sunscreen ingredients like Oxybenzone, then look for SPF blockers like Zinc oxide and Titanium dioxide (called “mineral sunscreen” ingredients). Also practice other sun-safe habits like staying in the shade when outdoors, wear big hats and sunglasses, stay indoors during peak sun hours, wear UV protective clothing. I also recommend avoiding aerosol sunscreens as these are more likely to leave residue and droplets on the beach and sand which can end up in the ocean (not to mention, the risk of inhalation with the aerosol sprays).

Also in development are sunscreens containing only natural and organic ingredients. These are likely not to have been subjected to rigorous testing and approval, so it is difficult to know how effective and how protective from harmful UV rays they truly are. Other major companies are likely going to develop and release sunscreen products that don’t contain Oxybenzone and Octinoxate.

Some brands that we sell at REN Dermatology & Laser Center which do NOT contain Oxybenzone or Octinoxate include:

For face:

SkinMedica Essential Defense Mineral Shield SPF 32: comes in tinted and untinted; contains 5% Titanium dioxide and 6% zinc oxide. No parabens, Fragrance free, oil free

Revision Intellishade TruPhysical SPF 45: contains 14.4% Zinc oxide, 4.4% Titanium dioxide

EltaMD UV Elements SPF 44: contains 10% zinc oxide, 5.5% titanium dioxide

EltaMD UV Physical SPF 41: Water-resistant and lightly tinted, contains 9% zinc oxide, 7% titanium dioxide

For face and body:

EltaMD UV Pure SPF 47: safe for children; contains 10% zinc oxide, 5.5% titanium dioxide

REN_Web_Res-7-225x300About Dr. Lee
Dr. Jennifer Lee is the Medical Director of REN Dermatology. She is a Board-certified Dermatologist and Diplomate of the American Board of Dermatology, who specializes in the diagnosis and management of skin diseases. She has received her medical training at the nation’s top institutions.

Dr. Lee is a native of Maryland and attended University of Maryland on a full merit scholarship.

Dr. Lee is a graduate of Harvard Medical School. After completing her residency training, she accepted a faculty position at Harvard Medical School.

In 2010, Dr. Lee joined the faculty of Vanderbilt University Medical Center in the Division of Dermatology.

As Medical Director of REN Dermatology, Dr. Lee maintains her status as Clinical Assistant Professor at Vanderbilt University Medical Center. She is a Fellow of the American Academy of Dermatology.

REN Dermatology now has two locations to serve you. Please visit our offices at 155 Covey Dr, Suite 200, Franklin, TN and 1195 Old Hickory Blvd, Suite 202, Brentwood, TN