Popular sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate were proven to negatively impact marine life in saltwater, leading Hawaii and Key West to ban the sale of sunscreens containing those chemicals in 2021.
A major push toward the ban was the impact the chemicals have on the coral reefs. Coral provides a habitat for aquatic species and draws in many tourists. Sunscreen chemicals were found to accumulate in the tissues of coral as well as induce bleaching which changes the color of the coral, damages DNA, deforms young and even leads to mortality.
But the negative impact does not stop there.
According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, trace amounts of sunscreen chemicals can also impair the growth and photosynthesis of green algae and increase the probability of endocrine disruption, affecting reproductive hormones, in fish, invertebrate species, vertebrate species and mammals.
Following the ban, a coalition of 60 community leaders, conservations, organizations, businesses, elected officials and academics petitioned for a federal ban and reclassification of the chemicals by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A federal ban may be helpful not just to saltwater species but to freshwater as well.
Limited research has shown that chemicals in sunscreen may also affect freshwater habitats like Lake Erie.
“There are limited studies, but they are showing impacts to growth on algae and water fleas which are a small type of phytoplankton,” says Jill Bartolotta, an extension educator for Ohio Sea Grant and Ohio State Stone Laboratory. “The bottom of the food chain, but everything else depends on that.”
Although some research has been done, this topic is new and studies must be replicated for solid evidence. Research on plastic contaminants was something Bartolotta says was not discussed 10 years ago, but now a lot of research is being done. She believes the same will happen for sunscreen.
“It is definitely a newer contaminant of concern for the region, and one that requires more research,” Bartolotta says.
Until more is learned about the topic, Bartolotta suggests looking toward sunscreen alternatives such as UV-protectant clothing, wearing a hat, sitting under an umbrella and avoiding the outdoors when the sun is at peak intensity to keep the skin safe from UV rays and the water safe from harmful chemicals.