“What defines an invasive species? Are humans an invasive species?”, one of my students asked me during lunch. Earlier that day he had asked a similar question in front of the whole group, but I had responded that we didn’t have enough time to get into a long debate about the contentious definition of an invasive species. I said that if he wanted, we could debate whether or not humans were an invasive species over lunch.
While every person has a unique packing list for a day by the water, there is one item that is ubiquitous in preparation for swimming, fishing, boating, and more: sunscreen. Sunscreen is so inherent to our concept of summer activities that even the smell of it can conjure up nostalgic beach memories. Yet, while chemicals in sunscreen, specifically oxybenzone and octinoxate, might protect our skin from UV-ray damage, they do the opposite for corals, stripping them of their defenses against coral bleaching. Our ocean is being damaged by a variety of other complex issues, but the impact of sunscreen is something we can exercise control over to make a real difference.
Coral bleaching is one of the major issues harming our ocean and the marine life that inhabits it. NOAA’s Coral Reef Conservation Program shows that coral engages in a symbiotic relationship with algae called zooxanthellae which live in the coral’s tissues and provide not only a constant food source but also their beautiful colors. When corals become stressed, they expel the algae, causing themselves to turn white and leaving them vulnerable to disease. This can be devastating to ecological diversity because a variety of marine life depends on coral reefs for sustenance. In fact, scientists often refer to them as “rainforests of the sea.” Yet, coral bleaching destroys habitats for many aquatic creatures and threatens a massive decline in marine biodiversity.
While huge problems like ocean acidification and climate change are causing this terrifying phenomenon, even smaller acts like the use of sunscreen are contributing to it. A 2015 study from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory found that sunscreen can damage coral DNA and act as an endocrine disruptor, stunting growth and development. And these harmful effects can be caused by even the tiniest amount of sunscreen. The Ocean Conservancy reported that only a tiny drop of these chemicals in six and half Olympic swimming pools can cause serious harm to corals. Sunscreen is making a bad situation even worse by further damaging corals and other marine life that is already in trouble.
Fortunately, Hawaii is calling the rest of the world to action with its countless efforts to address this issue. Hawaii became the first state to pass legislation banning the sale of sunscreen that includes oxybenzone and octinoxate without a doctor’s prescription. This law is an important first step in saving our ocean, and it will go into effect on January 1, 2021. Hawaii will serve as a model for other states—even landlocked ones. Sunscreen can wash into our waterways when we wash it off into our sinks or showers. Thus, responsibility extends beyond just coastal states.
While the regulation of sunscreen is being debated in Congress, and in other governments around the world, people can make a difference of their own. National Geographic advises that we skip sunscreen with oxybenzone, avoid spray sunscreen, and cover ourselves with hats, clothing, and shade to protect our skin. A list of coral reef safe sunscreen has been published on Hawaii’s website to guide travelers and inhabitants alike in using the more environmentally friendly products. With consumer consciousness and motivation, we can combat coral bleaching caused by sunscreen if we decide to use different products and protect ourselves from the sun differently. While many of the problems facing our natural world seem complicated and hard to manage, sunscreen use is one that citizens can spearhead to save our coral reefs.