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Is sunscreen harmful to Bonaire’s reef?

Updated: Nov 6, 2017

Press Release Boneiru Duradero

The effect of sunscreen on coral has been investigated for many years by scientists. The life work of Dr. Craig Downs, Director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory (HEL), Virginia USA is fully focused on Oxybenzone, a UV filter that is used in a lot of sun protections. His research led to a well-organized citizenship initiative in Hawaii. In addition to public awareness campaigns and education about harmful sunburn, Hawaii also tries to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone through legislation.

The reality is that our reef knows many threats, such as climate change and the resulting rising water temperature and pollution due to sewage and sedimentation. Sunburn, like climate change, is a global problem, but fortunately, we can take measures at local level to counteract the effects of oxybenzone. According to Diana Slijkerman, of Wageningen Marine Research, it is very possible to solve this problem on Bonaire.

1. The effects of Oxybenzone

The Oxybenzone UV- filters the natural integrity of coral in different ways. As a result, the coral is less resistant to other threats such as climate change because it:

1. Generates a hormone disorder and causes disorders causing coral larvae to be damaged or killed;

2. causes DNA damage and viral infections;

3. Coincides in coral tissue;

4. coral bleaching could accelerate.

Generally speaking, sunscreens containing oxybenzone cause irreparable damage to the reef, but are especially life threatening for young corals.

2. Investigation of harmful effects of sunscreen on Bonaire

A recent study of Dr. Diana Slijkerman shows that oxybenzone is also present on Bonaire. She has researched the potential risk of oxybenzone and three other UV filters, specifically looking at the concentrations at Sorobon and the nearby Mangrove Lac Cai. Slijkerman made a risk analysis of the concentrations present at the breeding sites, so-called nursery schools in the area.

Unlike three years ago, Bonaire currently receives cruise ships throughout the year. These cruise tourists increasingly visit Sorobon, resulting in a significant increase in the amount of sunburn used there. Therefore, the risk of potentially harmful sunscreens in the waters of the Lac Bay area is high. The relationship between the growing number of recreators on Sorobon and the potential threat that goes into it can not be denied. Diana Slijkerman concludes that it would be wise to take preventive measures to prevent future environmental impacts. Diana says, "The problem surrounding oxybenzone and its harmful effects is very complex, but the possible solutions are very simple."

3. What can we do to protect our reefs on Bonaire?

Bonaire hopes that more islands in the Caribbean will recognize the harmful effects of oxybenzone. We can learn a lot from Hawaii's experience in education and training, as there are simple steps that can be taken by anyone to protect the reef on Bonaire:

1. Do not use a sunscreen with oxybenzone. Read the ingredients list on the back of the package, look at oxybenzone or the description benzophenone 3 (or BP-3). Note: Manufacturers often put misleading information on the packaging, claiming that their product is safe for the reef. All products containing oxybenzone are by definition not "reef friendly";

2. Make sure you apply the sunscreen for a minimum of 30 minutes to swimming. In this way, the cream adheres to your skin and reduces the amount of sunscreen that rinses off you when you are going to swim.

3. Choose for lotions instead of sprays. Sprays nebulize the sunscreen and enlarge the distribution area, so that the sunscreen can form a layer on the water surface;

4. Avoid SPF over 50 (SPF 50 blocks 98% of UV radiation, SPF100 blocks 99%) SPF 30 to 50 should provide adequate protection if the sunburn is properly used. Sunscreen with a higher SPF, contain much more chemicals than creams with a lower SPF, while offering minimal additional protection.

5. Wear protective clothing, such as long-sleeved wetshirts and a hat or cap to protect you from the sun. Clothing also provides protection against UV radiation, this is expressed in UPF. Synthetic fabrics have higher UPF than cotton fabrics, especially when wet.

Follow-up steps for Bonaire

In early 2018, Boneiru Duradero and Wageningen Marine Research, with the support of the World Nature Fund, will organize a seminar on the harmful effects of sunscreens. During this seminar, Craig Downs and Diana Slijkerman will share their scientific research with all relevant stakeholders at Bonaire. Creating awareness about the possible threat to our reef caused by sunburn with oxybenzone is the main goal here. In addition, the seminar aims to conclude a voluntary covenant with all sunscreen resellers, so that they commit themselves to selling only sunscreens without oxybenzone on Bonaire. Our island is largely dependent on healthy coral and it is therefore unreasonable to expect the cooperation of local companies and residents of Bonaire to contribute to the solution. Hopefully this initiative will also be taken over by other islands in the region.


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