Why sunscreen is harmful to the environment

By Tacye Hong

New research suggests that the chemicals used to make sunscreen are bad for coral reefs

By Tacye Hong |

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Sunscreen can decrease the chances of melanoma but it can also cause a great deal of harm to the environment as Kelvin Leung from the Department of Chemistry at HKBU said.

We’re often told to put sunscreen on when we hit the beach. This is because we know that the regular use of sunscreen can decrease the chances of melanoma, the deadliest type of skin cancer, from developing when we’re out in the sun.

What is less commonly known, however, is that sunscreen can cause a great deal of harm to the environment. A study by Baptist University (HKBU) published earlier this month found a high level of UV filter chemicals are present in the ocean and in marine life. Many sunscreens are full of these chemicals. The lead researcher and Associate Professor of the Department of Chemistry at HKBU, Kelvin Leung Sze-yin, said that these filters can lead to a higher mortality rate in fish offspring. These filters may be harmful to humans in the same way, too. If a person ate several fish, for example, they might have also ingested chemicals that these fish have ingested further down the food chain.

In July of this year, David Ige, the governor of the US state of Hawaii, signed a bill that proposed banning the use of sunscreens containing chemicals harmful to ocean reefs. This was brought about because too many people were swimming in the sea after applying sunscreen, which would wash off into the water. This settles on the coral reefs, and can lead to coral bleaching (when they expel the algae that in lives in them), or even coral death. Coral reefs make up an important part of an underwater ecosystem, and are vital to the survival of many organisms.

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Some argue that it is more important to protect humans from the harmful effects of the sun than it is to protect the environment. However, we are only a part of the world, not the whole sum of it. It is incredibly selfish of us to think that we are more important than the other creatures we share the world with. There’s a saying that goes: what goes around, comes around. What might not affect us now will eventually affect us, or our children, in the future.

Years ago, we had to deal with the “hole in the ozone” – a problem where our heavy use of a chemical called chlorofluorocarbons was creating a hole in our ozone layer. This layer absorbs most of the sun’s ultraviolet radiation before it arrives on Earth. Thanks to governments around the world pushing the awareness of such a problem and our pursuit of alternative chemicals, the hole in the ozone has been shrinking. This goes to prove that, through global efforts, it is entirely possible to maintain a certain way of life while being environmentally aware and responsible.

The Hong Kong government should do more to educate the public on the harmful effects of certain types of sunscreen products. There are already many other types of sunscreen available that are less harmful to the environment. In places where these alternatives cannot be bought, then we should all take other actions to protect ourselves from the sun. We should do what we used to be told to do when we were younger – stay in the shade, and wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers.

Edited by Ginny Wong