In-Depth: Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-OR) introduced this bill as part of a pair of bills to address the growing threat that sunscreen chemicals pose to coral reefs around the world and to study these chemicals’ impact on human health and the environment. This bill would specifically require the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop standards for a “Reef Safe” label for sunscreens:
“While sun protection is incredibly important, we need to take action if these chemicals are harming human health or our environment. Understanding the full impact of these chemicals on our bodies and on marine life is a critical first step to making sure that we aren’t inadvertently putting ourselves or our planet in danger when we put on sunscreen for a day at the beach.”
The other bill that Sen. Merkley introduced along with this legislation is the Oxybenzone and Octinoxate Impact Study Act of 2019 (S. 1371 / H.R. 2588), which would require the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) to study those two chemicals’ effects on human health and the environment.
The Consumer Healthcare Products Association (CHPA), the sunscreen industry’s lobbying organization, argues that banning oxybenzone and octinoxate would reduce sunscreens’ efficacy, harming people’s health:
“[Moving away from oxybenzone and octinoxate would] ban at least 70 percent of the sunscreens on the market today, based on weak science blaming sunscreens for damage to coral reefs. This irresponsible action will make it more difficult for families to protect themselves against the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays. Overwhelming scientific evidence shows that excess sun exposure without effective sunscreen increases the risk of developing skin cancer in both adults and children. Banning oxybenzone and octinoxate – key ingredients in effective sunscreens on the market – will drastically and unnecessarily reduce the selection of safe and effective sunscreen products available to residents and visitors. Oxybenzone and octinoxate, found in the majority of sunscreens, are safe and effective over-the-counter (OTC) active ingredients recognized by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as important aides in decreasing the risk of developing skin cancer, the most common cancer in the U.S.”
The CHPA also contends that “global warming, agricultural runoff, sewage, and overfishing,” not sunscreen, are the true causes of coral decline. It argues that reducing oxybenzone and octinoxate would create ‘false hope” for coral restoration alongside a public health crisis.
This bill doesn’t have any cosponsors. Its House companion, sponsored by Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), has one cosponsor, Rep. Tim Ryan (D-OH).
Of Note: Oxybenzone and octinoxate, which can act as endocrine disruptors that harm coral’s DNA and make it difficult for coral to survive climate change, are ingredients in many commercial sunscreens. Both chemicals can also harm sea turtle eggs, shellfish, sea urchins and dolphins. They’ve also been linked to decreasing fish fertility, impaired algae growth and defects in mussel young.
There are also potential harms to humans from oxybenzone and octinoxate. Earlier this year, the FDA’s Center for Drug Evaluation and Research released a study showing that a single day of sunscreen use is enough for the chemicals in it to enter the bloodstream.
However, it’s worth noting that the implications of the FDA study are still unclear. Yale School of Medicine dermatologist Dr. David Leffell, a spokesman for the American Academy of Dermatology, says, “Studies need to be performed to evaluate this finding and determine whether there are true medical implications to absorption of certain ingredients.”
Scott Faber, senior vice president for government affairs at the Environmental Working Group (EWG), an advocacy group that publishes a yearly guide on sunscreens, adds:
“It's not news that things that you put on your skin are absorbed into the body. This study is the FDA's way of showing sunscreen manufacturers they need to do the studies to see if chemical absorption poses health risks."
Hawaii, Palau (a nation in the Pacific), and Key West have all recently banned sunscreens containing oxybenzone and octinoxate because they cause coral bleaching and are dangerous to marine ecosystems. Additionally, sunscreen products in many EU countries have mostly replaced oxybenzone and octinoxate with newer, more protective substances that block out more UVB and UVA rays. However, those newer products haven’t passed the FDA’s safety tests yet, so oxybenzone remains in use — in fact, it’s in two-thirds of all chemically-based sunscreens sold in the U.S.
The National Park Service reports that 4,000-6,000 tons of sunscreen enter reef areas around the world each year. In a recent article, National Geographic estimated even more dire numbers, estimating that 14,000 tons of sunscreen wash into the oceans each year. The Park Service also notes that coral reefs — which cover less than 1% of the ocean floor but serve as home to nearly one million species of fish — are threatened by many types of sunscreen.
Reef safe sunscreens should list titanium dioxide and zinc oxide as their only active ingredients. They should also have natural, plant-based inactive ingredients, such as organic sunflower oil and organic beeswax.
Summary by Lorelei Yang(Photo Credit: iStockphoto.com / Placebo365)