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Palau Bans Sunscreen Chemicals to Protect its Coral Reefs

palau sunscreen title

The Republic of Palau has banned sunscreen and other related products containing chemicals that are known to be harmful to coral reefs.

President Tommy E Remengesau, Jr, of the Republic of Palau, signed The Responsible Tourism Education Act of 2018 into law earlier this week. In doing so, Palau becomes the first country to ban sunscreen products containing all ten of the most threatening chemicals. Similar bans are pending in Hawaii and Bonaire, but only take into account the most threatening of chemicals.

Palau has introduced a raft of pioneering legislation over the last decade. Palau created the world's first dedicated shark sanctuary in 2009, has banned bottom fishing, and in 2015 created the Palau National Marine Sanctuary, the largest 'no-take', marine protected area in the world. In 2017, they launched the 'Palau Pledge', stamped into the passports of all visitors to the country.

Craig Downs, executive director at the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory in Hawaii, said other nations would be watching Palau's move to ban toxic sunscreens closely. 'It's the first country to ban these chemicals from tourism. I think it's great, they're being proactive,' he said. 'They don't want to be like Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia, where they've had to shut down beaches. The coral reefs around those beaches have died.' The sunscreen ban follows the closure of Maya Beach in Thailand and Borocay Bay in the Philippines, where mass tourism has had a severely detrimental effect on the local environment.

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Visitors to Palau must sign the Palau Pledge stamped into their passports

Anyone importing or selling banned sunscreen from that date faces a $1,000 fine, while tourists who bring it into the country will have it confiscated. 'The power to confiscate sunscreens should be enough to deter their non-commercial use, and these provisions walk a smart balance between educating tourists and scaring them away,' said President Remengesau, after the ban was announced.

This new law is part of the Palau Responsible Tourism Policy Framework which requires that all visitors to Palau 'become part of the solution to the environmental challenges in our pristine paradise.' Starting from 1 January 2020, this new law will ban the sale and use of all sunscreen  and skincare products, including sunscreens, shampoos, moisturizers, liquid soaps, and hair conditioners that contain the following ingredients:

  • Oxybenzone (benzophenone-3)
  • Octinoxate (octyl methoxycinnamate)
  • Octocrylene
  • 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor
  • Methyl paraben 
  • Ethyl paraben
  • Butyl paraben
  • Benzyl paraben
  • Triclosan
  • Phenoxyethanol
Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, Octocrylene, and 4-methyl-benzylidene camphor are all Sun Protection Factor (SPF) chemicals. The four parabens, triclosan, and phenoxyethanol are antimicrobial preservatives used in sunscreens, shampoos, moisturizers, liquid soaps, and hair conditioners.

These chemicals are known environmental pollutants and are incredibly toxic to juvenile stages of many wildlife species, including corals, fish, macroalgae and even people. Most of them are 'endocrine disruptors', chemicals that interfere with the distribution of hormones throughout living organisms.

The worst offenders are Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. These chemicals are responsible for absorbing the sun's ultraviolet light and provide the Sun Protection Factor (SPF) in sunscreens. Over a dozen different scientific studies have shown that Oxybenzone, in particular, can have a devastating effect on marine life. It can cause corals to become more susceptible to bleaching, can damage the DNA of the coral and deform and kill juvenile corals. 

Oxybenzone has also been documented to turn adult male fish into female fish and cause developmental defects in young fish. Oxybenzone is toxic to shrimp, sea urchins, bivalves (scallops, mussels) and especially toxic to marine algae. It may also be responsible for fertility problems in adult human males, endometriosis in women, and has been associated with problems in human foetal development.

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The effect of just a tiny amount of Octinoxate on coral after only 14 days (Photo: www.haereticus-lab.org)

The threat to the world's coral reefs is substantial. Reports suggest up 14,000 tons of sunscreen are deposited in the ocean each year, however with one report suggesting the figure is as much as 6,000 tons in Hawai'i alone, the figure could be much higher. The chemicals' toxicity to algae, coral and fish life reduces the availability of food resources for larger animals. Green turtles, for example, which are strictly herbivorous in adult life, rely on algae as a food source where seagrass is unavailable. 

While the greatest threats to coral reefs remain climate change and near-shore development, it is thought that the chemicals in sunscreen add substantially to the problems already caused by other factors. Coral bleaching, for example, does not necessarily result in coral mortality, but with the pollutants from sunscreen affecting the regeneration of juveniles, it prevents the reef from recovering and reduces the overall resilience of the reef to other stressors. 

Over recent years, there has been a growth in the market for 'reef-friendly' sunscreen products, however, as with many food packaging labels, potential visitors should check the ingredients of their sunscreen prior to purchase, to ensure that they meet Palau's regulations. 

Sunscreens using non-nanosized zinc oxide and titanium oxide are recommended, but Dr Downs also added that the first line of defence against sunscreen pollution would be for people to wear protective clothing. 'From a conservation point of view, if you wear a sun shirt, you are reducing the sunscreen load by 50 per cent,' he said. 'That's a major conservation victory.'

 

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