By: John Levis
Every day millions of people apply sunscreen in order to protect their skin from the harmful rays of the sun, but at what cost to their and the environment’s health. In recent years people have questioned whether sunscreen should continue to be allowed to be sold due to the devastating effects it has on the environment and the possible medical repercussions that it may have. In fact, The New York Times showed that the damage sunscreen causes to the environment is so great that it has caused some countries to outright ban the product such as, “The Western Pacific nation of Palau has become the first country to ban many kinds of sunscreen, in a move to protect its coral reefs from chemicals that scientists say cause significant damage.”(Xu, 1). A multitude of studies done in the past decade have determined that sunscreen is extremely dangerous to the environment as it has been killing coral reefs and many other species of marine life. It is important to note that not all types of sunscreen are bad for the environment, or for people; as a matter of fact it is only chemical sunscreen that causes these issues. Physical sunscreens have been tested many times and the results have consistently shown that it causes no harm to both the environment and people. The main issue with chemical sunscreen to people is that almost all of the different chemicals have been proven to soak into the skin of those who use the product. The Washington Post has reported that, “Some experts are concerned that these chemicals may be absorbed through the skin, leading to skin irritation, hormonal disruption — even skin cancer. The Food and Drug Administration recently called for more research on the safety and effectiveness of these chemicals.”(Consumer Reports, 3). Due to sunscreen being such an old product it was grandfathered in by the FDA and did not have to undergo rigorous testing as other drugs have. Therefore, the negative effects on people who use the product have not been extensively researched, making the recent claims that it can cause serious damage all the more worrying.
A Brief History of Sunscreen
The sun’s ultraviolet (UV) rays have been a problem for humans due to its potential to cause skin cancer and sunburns. While most of the types of sunscreen people use nowadays have only been invented in the last 100 years, ancient civilization had been using a variety of herbs to make their own forms of sunscreen/skin care for many centuries. In fact, The Block Island Organics pointed out that, “Egyptians, to prevent their skin from tanning, used a concoction of rice bran, jasmine and lupine. According to research today - rice bran can absorb UV light, jasmine helps repair DNA and lupine lightens skin. Ancient Greeks employed olive oil for sun protection and Native Americans used a type of pine needle to soothe sunburns.”(Kelly, 3). Many of the ingredients used by early civilizations are still found today in sunscreen products around the world. Humans around the world have been trying to prevent the damaging effects of the sun for thousands of years with varying types of plant extracts, but it wasn’t until the late 1930’s that a tested method for skin cancer and sunburns caused by the sun had been invented. ThoughtCo. described when the first sunscreen with an actual protection factor was invented, “In 1938, an Austrian chemist named Franz Greiter invented one of the first big sunscreen products. Greiter's sunscreen was called "Gletscher Crème" or "Glacier Cream" and had a sun protection factor (SPF) of two.”(Bellis, 5). An SPF of two means that it takes twice as long for your skin to burn in the same intensity of sunlight. With the increased use of sunscreens, Greiter decided to create a standardized method of rating the strength and effectiveness of sunscreens by the invention of the SPF rating system. It can be used to help people determine the correct sunscreen for their particular skin. Sadly, the sunscreen products that gained the most widespread use were chemical sunscreens because they did not leave a colored layer over your skin, often seen as white, as physical sunscreens do. Physical sunscreens are similar to chemical sunscreen in how they protect against the sun’s rays, but their main ingredients, the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, have shown to be GRASE (generally recognized as safe and effective). Currently there are seventeen FDA approved UV filters that are used in sunscreens with fifteen of them are being chemical and the remaining two being mineral. Of the fifteen chemical ingredients used in sunscreen products there is insufficient data for them to currently be considered GRASE.
Lens/Framework 1: Social Construction of Nature
In the textbook 'Environment and Society’ it is shown that mankind has an extremely destructive relationship with nature; often continuing practices that lead to the downfall of environments. This is especially true with how people have dealt with the rapid destruction of coral reefs caused by sunscreen products. Most chemical sunscreen is a mixture of about 12 different chemicals that block harmful UVA and UVB rays from absorbing as quickly into the skin. The most dangerous of these chemicals is Oxybenzone which has been shown repeatedly that it kills many different kinds of marine life, and coral reefs are among the most affected. After extensive research The Morro Bay National Estuary Program determined that, “Oxybenzone acts as a genotoxicant to coral reefs, meaning that it damages the corals’ DNA. This damage ultimately kills the corals’ offspring, also known as planulae. The chemical does this by disrupting the skeletal endocrine of each planula, which essentially makes the planula encase itself in its own bone structure and die.”(MBNEP, 9). Oxybenzone is still a chemical component of almost all chemical sunscreen even after multiple studies have shown that it is a genotoxicant for coral, meaning that it causes deadly mutations at the genic level of coral. It also affects the algae around the coral causing impairment in growth and photosynthesis, eventually killing off the necessary algae. Additionally, it has also been proven to kill many other species of marine life such as fish, sea urchins, muscles, and even many mammals like dolphins.
If something is not done very soon in regards to the dangers of ingredients in chemical sunscreen then many types of marine life and entire ecosystems will be destroyed. Coral reefs continue to be affected by toxic chemicals as they have for the past decades, so it is only a matter of time until they are no longer able to reproduce and the entire ecosystem will fall apart, causing permanent damage to more than just the coral and marine species in the immediate vicinity. This is due to coral reefs having more benefits than just being an ecosystem, which is already important enough, they also provide for humans just about as much as they do animals. In fact, Coral reefs are one of the biggest natural protectors of coastline erosion and flooding and with them gone many small islands and a lot of coastlines will disappear. Additionally, due to the coral being bleached from the toxic chemicals many countries' tourism industries will be completely ruined, therefore developing countries and small island countries will have massive job loss along with no monetary way to fix the problem. It will also cause food shortages in coastal regions and health industries will lose many life saving drugs produced from coral and the species that live there. Lastly, it is very important to remember that however insignificant a species might appear to be once it is eliminated from a region or goes extinct it will severely impact the natural food chains causing even more marine and land species to fall in numbers.
Lens/Framework 2: Risks and Hazards
While sunscreen effects on the social construction of nature are reason alone to outlaw the product, it also poses just as great a risk and hazard to the health of people. The main issue caused only by chemical sunscreens is that the many chemicals used are actually leaching into people’s bloodstream. A new study published in The Journal of the American Medical Association determined that, “It shows that the six active ingredients tested were absorbed into the body. Some continued to be elevated beyond the FDA’s threshold of concern for 3 weeks after the people in the study stopped putting them on their skin. For example, blood concentrations of oxybenzone were more than 180 times the FDA’s level of concern after a single application of sunscreen.”(WebMD, 22). This data is extremely concerning as tests have only recently been done on how much of these chemicals absorb into a person’s system and they have shown to be hundreds of times more than the allowed amount by the FDA. The fact that these chemicals are over 180 times the allotted amount after just one application and that they stay in someone's system for many weeks has shown that there needs to be much more extensive research done on the dangers of these chemicals to the body. There has been little research done on the dangers of these chemicals, especially Oxybenzone, and when there are studies done they often show that most all of the chemicals cause debilitating effects on people’s health and wellbeing. Recent research published in Reproductive Toxicology stated that, “The study found a link between oxybenzone—an organic compound used in chemical sunscreens which turn UV rays into heat and then release it from the body—and a birth defect called Hirschsprung's disease.”(Travers, 2). Oxybenzone has been proven to cause many adverse health effects from low fertility in adults to surgery requiring diseases in children and fetuses. While the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD) has told citizens to continue to use sunscreen until further research has shown negative repercussions, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has warned parents not to use sunscreen containing Oxybenzone on their children making it very confusing for the public to know what the right action is. While Oxybenzone is by far the worst chemical ingredient in sunscreen it is not the only one that has been found to cause serious damage to people. Avobenzone has been shown, along with Oxybenzone and a couple of other commonly used chemicals in sunscreen, that it can cause hormone disruption and even cancers that it is meant to stop. With the current reports that sunscreen is possibly causing more health problems than benefits, it is much too risky to continue the sale of these products to the public and especially children; as sunscreen is an over the counter drug meaning anyone can buy it without any prescription.
It is clear from the many studies done on chemical sunscreens that it is far too dangerous to marine environments and people for its continued use throughout the world. Coral reefs around the world are dying from people’s use of chemical sunscreens and if nothing is done very soon to stop this it will be too late. In fact, sunscreen will do more damage than just ruining an ecosystem. It will destroy countries' economies, coastal landscape, and cause food shortages around coastal regions. While there have been many health issues that have already been linked to chemical sunscreens there has only been a small amount of research done, meaning that it is very likely that with more testing scientists will find a plethora more problems directly connected to the use of sunscreens. In all, chemical sunscreen has been shown in multiple aspects, from the destruction of the social construction of nature to the many risks and hazards, that it is a product that needs to be changed massively or banned completely; I believe banning chemical sunscreens is the only option. In fact, people could easily switch over to using only physical sunscreen that does not hurt people or the environment with the only downside being that there will be a lite white coating on the surface of your skin. Overall, unless many more countries ban the sale and use of chemical sunscreen or the FDA comes out with evidence that verifiably shows that the dangers of using chemical sunscreen much outway the benefits, then it will be up to the public and government agencies to change the sunscreen industries’ impact on public and environmental health.
Bellis, Mary. "A History of Sunscreen." ThoughtCo, 23 Nov. 2019, https://thoughtco.com/suncreen-history-1992440.
Consumer Reports. “What You Need to Know about the Chemicals in Your Sunscreen.” The Washington Post, 17 June 2019,www.washingtonpost.com/health/what-you-need-to-know-about-the-chemicals-in-your sunscreen/2019/06/14/3840042c-8ca3-11e9-adf3-f70f78c156e8_story.html.
Goodman, Brenda. “FDA Sunscreen Report Raises Concern Over Chemicals.” WebMD, 21 Jan. 2020, www.webmd.com/skin-problems-and-treatments/news/20200121/fda-skin-absorbs-dangerous-sunscreen-chemicals.
Kelly. “The History of Sunscreen.” The Block Island Organics , 6 April 2016, www.blockislandorganics.com/Blog/post/2016/04/06/The-History-of-Sunscreen.aspx.
Robbins, Paul, et al. Environment and Society : A Critical Introduction, John Wiley & Sons, Incorporated, 2014. ProQuest Ebook Central, https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/humboldt/detail.action?docID=1582846.
“The Truth about Sunscreen: Its Effects on Us and the Environment.” Morro Bay National Estuary Program, 14 June 2019, www.mbnep.org/2019/06/11/the-truth-about-sunscreen-its-effects-on-us-and-the-environment/.
Travers, Colleen. “Using Chemical Sunscreen During Pregnancy May Cause a Rare Birth Defect.” Parents, 8 Apr. 2019, www.parents.com/news/using-chemical-sunscreen-during-pregnancy-may-cause-a-rare-birth-defect/.
Xu, Vicky Xiuzhong. “Palau Bans Many Kinds of Sunscreen, Citing Threat to Coral.” The New York Times, 2 Nov. 2018, www.nytimes.com/2018/11/02/world/asia/palau-sunscreen-ban-coral.html.