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Chemicals in Sunscreen Not only Harmful to Humans, but also Coral Reefs

 In Naturopathic News

Node Smith, ND

Sunscreen may be important for preventing sunburns and skin cancer, however some of the ingredients in conventionally produced sunscreen can not only be detrimental to human health, but also sea creatures. Specifically, sunscreen chemicals from swimmers are thought to contribute to the destruction of coral reefs worldwide. Current research from ACS’ journal, Analytical Chemistry, isolates a chemical, octocrylene (OC), which is also used in other cosmetics and hair products. OC accumulates in coral as fatty acid esters that could be toxic to marine life, such as coral.

As much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen per year end up in the ocean

Current estimates suggest that as much as 14,000 tons of sunscreen per year end up in the ocean. This is such a serious concern because of the effect it has on ocean life that the state of Hawaii has recently banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, two other chemicals that are known to harm coral – this law will take effect in January 2021. Another chemical, OC, is found in hair sprays, hair conditioners, and other cosmetics besides sunscreen. The researchers wondered what the effect of this chemical would be on coral at concentrations typical to what is seen in the ocean.

Coral sensitive to OC at concentrations of 50 micrograms per liter and higher

Their study exposed coral to OC at a range of concentrations for a week. They saw that coral was sensitive to OC at concentrations of 50 micrograms per liter and higher. These levels are quite a bit higher than the levels seen in the ocean – about 10 times. However, OC was seen to accumulate in the coral as fatty acid conjugates, which may interfere with the metabolism of the coral. The team also detected increased acylcarnitines in exposed coral, which can result from abnormal fatty acid metabolism and mitochondrial dysfunction. The researchers concluded that the levels of OC in the ocean might have been underestimated because the measurements did not take OC fatty acid esters into account.


Node Smith, ND, is a naturopathic physician in Portland, OR and associate editor for NDNR. He has been instrumental in maintaining a firm connection to the philosophy and heritage of naturopathic medicine among the next generation of docs. He helped found the first multi-generational experiential retreat, which brings elders, alumni, and students together for a weekend camp-out where naturopathic medicine and medical philosophy are experienced in nature. Four years ago he helped found the non-profit, Association for Naturopathic ReVitalization (ANR), for which he serves as the board chairman. ANR has a mission to inspire health practitioners to embody the naturopathic principles through experiential education. Node also has a firm belief that the next era of naturopathic medicine will see a resurgence of in-patient facilities which use fasting, earthing, hydrotherapy and homeopathy to bring people back from chronic diseases of modern living; he is involved in numerous conversations and projects to bring about this vision.

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