Sunscreen ingredients, including oxybenzone, are shown Wednesday, May 2, 2018, in San Jose, Calif. Many sunscreen makers could soon be forced to change their formulas or be banned from selling lotions in Hawaii. Hawaii state lawmakers on Tuesday passed a measure that would ban the local sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate by 2021 in an effort to protect coral reefs. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

Sunscreen ingredients, including oxybenzone, are shown Wednesday, May 2, 2018, in San Jose, Calif. Many sunscreen makers could soon be forced to change their formulas or be banned from selling lotions in Hawaii. Hawaii state lawmakers on Tuesday passed a measure that would ban the local sale of sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate by 2021 in an effort to protect coral reefs. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

UVic professor warns against biological impact of sunscreen

Caren Helbing

The importance of protecting skin from the sun’s ultraviolet rays has been proven, but what about the biological impact?

Vancouver Island is a wildlife sanctuary and preserving it while protecting the skin is a topic that has come to the forefront.

The environmental impact is already being addressed in Hawaii as it is the first state to pass a bill banning the sale of sunscreen containing chemicals believed to be harmful to coral reefs. As of January 1, 2021 sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate will not be sold or distributed in the state, unless medically prescribed.

Caren Helbing, Professor of Biochemistry at the University of Victoria, said “organic” sunscreen has the chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, that are responsible for coral bleaching. Those two components, in addition to benzophenone-3, are in used in organic sunscreens to block and filter the UV rays.

Organic sunscreens also contain perfume in them that have been shown to affect hormones, called endocrine disruptors, and can also affect nerve function and brain development.

Helbing said the caveat to the biological results of sunscreen tests is that the testing is done at high amounts and increased use – more than what one person might use if they put on sunscreen to lay by the pool.

“A lot of the issues around sunscreens in particular is that the sheer amount that’s used, and it’s going up as people want to protect themselves from sunburn,” she said.

But in regards to hormones, sometimes using lower concentrations of sunscreen can have more of an impact, Helbing said.

Removing sunscreen from the water is the biggest challenge, she said, noting that waste water treatment facilities can’t remove it and it tends to accumulate. These results are only recently being identified of the lasting effects of sunscreen particles that wash off in the water and aren’t able to be broken down, “this is a wake up call, that we need to look at it more,” she said.

Mineral sunscreens that include zinc oxide or titanium dioxide, do not have oxybenzone or octinoxate. The nano particle based versions that go on clear, and have the same SPF factor, Helbing said are generally regarded as “safer”, but there is the possibility that even mineral sunscreens can affect sea life, especially if it’s ingested. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide have not shown that they affect thyroid hormone levels when compared to other metals.

The “non-nano” particle form of mineral sunscreen, that is thicker and looks like a plaster, is currently considered safe for the environment, but testing hasn’t been extensive enough to give a definitive answer, Helbing said.

For safety in the sun, Helbing suggested using organic sunscreen sparingly, or choose a mineral sunscreen that has zinc oxide or titanium dioxide in it rather than other types of active ingredients.

“Right now, those are the best ones that we know of that have the least amount of overall effects,” she said.

Helbing recommneds wearing UV protective clothing whenever possible.


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lindsey.horsting@goldstreamgazette.com

University of Victoria