Palau bans ‘toxic’ sun creams to protect coral reefs

The pacific island nation of Palau has become the first country in the world to ban sun creams containing chemicals toxic to corals and other reef animals. It is hoped that similar bans in other tourist hotspots could help reduce pressure on struggling reefs.

Palau tourism
You will no longer find sun creams containing toxic chemicals in resorts like this across Palau

There aren’t many things as synonymous with tropical holidays as sun cream. But whilst the chemicals in our lotions protect us from the damaging effects of UV rays, they are also negatively affecting marine life in a big way. In particular coral reefs and the countless animals that call them home. As a result many tourist destinations are deciding to ban sun creams containing these toxic chemicals to protect their marine life. The very first of these bans comes into effect today in the small Pacific nation of Palau. It is hoped that similar bans from other island nations and raising awareness of the issue can help avoid unnecessarily increasing the already substantial pressure coral reefs face.

Toxic ingredients

The main chemicals in question are oxybenzone and octinoxate two UV absorbing compounds that have been used widely in almost all sun creams for the last 50 years. In 2015 a study lead by Dr Craig Downs made headlines around the world when they discovered these chemicals were actually harming marine life in a big way. The researchers found that the chemicals had a range of effects on corals including killing developing polyps, increasing the chance of coral bleaching and causing genetic damage. They also found both chemicals increase reproductive diseases in sea urchins, parrotfish, seals and others. As well as causing neurological issues in fish and sea turtles and can even lead to increasing feminisation in male fish. The study also showed that these chemicals can be damaging at a concentration of as small as 62 parts per trillion. Dr Downs told the Guardian that “lots of things kill coral reefs but we know these chemicals prevent them from coming back”.

turtle and reef
Coral reefs and their inhabitants can be seriously affected by oxybenzone and octinoxate

Taking action

Palau is a small island nation in the Pacific with a population of around 20,000 people. But its tropical climate, pristine beaches and crystal clear waters also make it a popular tourist destination for over 100,000 visitors every year. Most of who are keen scuba divers looking to explore Palau’s array of vibrant coral reefs. Because of this they decided to become the first nation to ban sun creams containing oxybenzone and octinoxate as well as eight other toxic ingredients. President Tommy Remengesau told the BBC that “we have to live and respect the environment because the environment is the nest of life” and also said that Palau ‘don’t mind’ being the first nation to make the move. The ban was actually passed in late 2018 but with the start of the New Year it is now illegal to use or import any toxic sun creams in the country. The penalty for breaking the new law is a hefty $1000 fine that is sure to deter any holiday goers from continuing to use toxic brands.

Rock islands
The rock islands in Palau are a UNESCO world heritage site and now protected from toxic sun creams

Trend setters

Although Palau is the first nation to introduce such a ban they will be by no means the last to do so. In fact several other countries including US Virgin Islands and Bonaire have already introduced similar laws with bans that will come into effect over the next few years, as well as Hawaii who have become the first US state to do the same. In addition to directly protecting the marine life of these countries it is also hoped that these bans will be able to make a much more widespread impact. The decision of more and more popular tourist destinations to ban toxic sun creams is already forcing companies to develop new reef safe products to sell there. Increasing public awareness is also leading to more consumers actively seeking out alternatives with internet searchers for ‘reef safe sun creams’ significantly increasing in recent years.  So toxic free alternatives that still effectively protect people from UV could very well become the only available sun creams in the future.

sun cream hands
All sun creams could soon ditch toxic chemicals forever

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