Represantational image. Image Credit: Supplied

Dubai: It’s a day out on the beach, and you’ve slathered sunscreen all over to protect your skin from the sun’s harmful UV radiation. And just when it gets too hot, you decide to go for a dip or swim to cool your body down.

The bad news is that three-quarters of the world’s coral reefs are at risk of dying due to global and local pressures, and sunscreens seem to be contributing to the damage.

The oxybenzone in chemical sunscreens is harmful to corals, algae and sea urchins. It not only increases the toxicity of the water, but causes coral bleaching.

- Dr Varsha Arun | Specialist dermatologist

Mounting evidence has shown that two chemicals found in the lotions and sprays are damaging corals and even killing fish.

More on sunscreen and environment

In July this year, Hawaii became the first state in the US to ban the sale and distribution of sunscreens that contain two chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are deemed to have significant harmful impacts on the state’s marine environment and residing ecosystems. The bill goes into effect on January 1, 2021. According to the US National Park Service, more than 6,000 tons of sunscreen end up in Hawaii’s waters each year, posing a serious threat to coral reefs.

75%

of coral reefs in Gulf waters have been lost due to mismanagement and global warming

Pacific nation of Palau has followed in its eco-friendly efforts just recently and also became the first country in the world to ban reef-killing sunscreens by 2020.

In light of the UAE losing over 73 per cent of its coral reefs due to bleaching, according to studies conducted by New York University Abu Dhabi (NYUAD) in collaboration with Emirates Environmental Agency (EEA), Gulf News explores how aware UAE residents are of the harmful use of sunscreens on the environment and what alternative options are available to protect our health.

Dr Varsha Arun, Specialist Dermatologist, Aster Clinic, explained that there are two primary types of sunscreens available in the market today: chemical and physical.

$15.83b

value of global sun care market in 2015. It is predicted to reach $24.91 billion by 2024, according to Statista.

“The former type absorbs the dangerous UV rays while the latter reflects them back into the atmosphere. It is based on this reflective property that physical sunscreens are also referred to as “sun blocks” and provide a broader protection against skin damage.”

Active ingredients in sunscreens come in two forms, mineral and chemical filters, she said. Each uses a different mechanism for protecting skin and maintaining stability in sunlight. The most common sunscreens on the market contain chemical filters.

These products typically include a combination of two to six of the following active ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. Mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide.

Out of the two types of sunscreens, physical and chemical, it is the ingredients present in chemical sunscreens that have a direct and harmful impact to the environment, especially to marine life.

It is estimated that around 850 million people live within 100km of a coral reef and directly benefit from
the economic, social and cultural services it provides.

- Marina Antonopoulou | Emirates Nature-WWF

“The oxybenzone present in chemical sunscreens is harmful to corals, marine life, algae and sea urchins. It not only increases the toxicity of the open waters, but also causes coral bleaching. A process whereby the algae present in coral reefs are expelled, resulting in the coral turning completely white.”

Dr Arun added that although bleaching does not kill the coral, it severely affects its health and mortality.

The use of chemical sunscreens are only a fraction of the problem. Coral Guardian, a French conservation organisation states that coral reefs are degraded by an accumulation of stress from human activities. “Overfishing, pollution and coastal development are high on the list of factors in chronic stress.”

Speaking to Gulf News, Marina Antonopoulou, Marine Programme Leader at Emirates Nature-WWF, said that in the UAE there are a number of known coral reefs and communities such as in Abu Dhabi waters and the East Coast. However, work is still ongoing to understand their extent throughout the waters of the UAE.

“Coral reefs provide some of the most biologically rich, productive and economically valuable ecosystems on Earth,” she said. “It is estimated that around 850 million people live within 100km of a coral reef and directly benefit from the economic, social and cultural services it provides such as fish supplies, storm protection, tourism related revenue among others.”

Also, most marine animals and microorganisms grow and propagate around the reef colonies.

Antonopoulou said rising ocean temperatures and acidity, due to climate change, have already taken a toll on coral reefs globally. This is also relevant for this region with particularly hot summer months and high water temperatures occurring for long periods.

Protection from the sun

The importance of using sunscreen, Dr Arun said, stems from the fact that an over exposure to the sun can lead to multiple skin ailments. Especially in the UAE, where the summer months are extremely hot and the intensity of sunlight is much greater, the need to protect oneself from being in the sun too long becomes paramount.

“Some of the health conditions that can arise from staying in the sun too long include sunburn and skin cancer (melanoma).”

According to the American Academy of Dermatology, skin cancer is currently the most common form of cancer, and the reason for this is because of a lack of effort on people’s part to protect their skin adequately.

Alternatives

Dr Arun said that currently steps are being taken to promote more organic, and environmentally friendly sunscreens, but there should be more awareness of the benefits of organic sunscreens over chemical ones. These organic sunscreens contain some combination of the following: coconut oil, shea butter, jojoba oil, eucalyptus and lavender essential oils, vitamin E oil, and non nano zinc oxide.

She said dermatologists in countries that experience hot summers should encourage the use of organic sunscreens “since they not only protect the environment, but also ensure that the patient does not suffer an adverse reaction to the chemicals present in off the counter sunscreens”.

Dr Arun pointed out that researchers are currently working on synthesising the chemical shinorine which a naturally occurring sunblock produced by the microbes cyanobacteria.

It is widely agreed by the global community that curbing climate change and ocean acidification is critical for maintaining marine ecosystems. In addition, protecting these habitats is urgently needed in a way that will minimise other anthropogenic threats in the vicinity and help increase their resilience in light of climate change. The myriad human activities taking place at sea, such as development, dredging if left unmanaged can also affect these ecosystems directly, but they can also reduce their capacity to cope with climate change.

Options to sunscreen

■ Wear large brimmed hats

■ Wear loose clothing that lets the skin breathe

■ Avoid going outdoors during the peak hours of summer

Public Awareness: ‘I’d do anything to help the environment’

Violetta Tavadova, 26, Armenian

Violetta Tavadova Image Credit: Supplied

I never knew that sunscreens contain chemicals that damage for the environment, especially the coral reefs. When I go to the beach I use sunscreen to protect my skin from getting burnt and also tanning oil to get colour. Normally after sometime I would go swim for a couple of minutes. While the places I swim in don’t usually have coral reefs, I would still consider switching to organic products for the sake of protecting the environment, especially when I travel.

Harry Heathcote, 19, Briton, public relations specialist

Harry Heathcote Image Credit: Supplied

I’ve never come across any research that has to do with environment and sunscreens. Usually when I’m in the UAE I go to the beach every two weeks. When I’m outside the country visiting Europe during a holiday I would also go for a swim in the beach. Some parts of Croatia where I’ve been to have coral reefs. Now that I know that chemicals found in sunscreens are deemed harmful to the environment, I would pay more attention to look at the back of the sunscreen bottles to see what substances they contain. I’d do anything to help the environment. I’d also make sure the bottles are disposed and recycled in an environmentally-friendly manner.

Lena Sarkies, 28, Egyptian, pharmacist

Lena Sarkies Image Credit: Supplied

I had no idea that this was the case. It is my first time to hear this and I’m a pharmacist. I go to the beach once a week. If I’m really tanned I’ll use sunscreen with an spf 50 or higher. I’m using a lot more sunscreen in the summer because the sun is very strong. Scientifically speaking, sunscreens prevent skin cancer. People will ask themselves, would they rather damage their skin or sea life. The option is to either not use sunscreens or not swim in the sea. I’ve also never heard of organic sunscreens, but if they are available I would switch to them.