Sunscreen is polluting the ocean

Sunscreen offers protection from UV rays, reduces the risk of skin cancer, and even slows down signs of aging. Unfortunately, researchers have found that sunscreen also pollutes the ocean.

Although people have been using these products for decades, “the effect of sunscreens, as a source of introduced chemicals to the coastal marine system, has not yet been addressed,” a research team writes in PLOS ONE. Sunscreens contain chemicals not only for UV protection, but also for coloring, fragrance, and texture. And beaches are becoming ever-more-popular vacation spots; for example, nearly 10 million tourists visited Majorca Island in the Mediterranean Sea in 2010.

The researchers collected water samples near two popular beaches and one rarely-used beach on Majorca Island. The team found four common sunscreen chemicals in the water, with levels peaking from 2 to 6pm. The chemicals were present even at the isolated beach.

The study authors also dissolved sunscreen in water and found that nutrients such as phosphate were released. At one of the resort beaches, people’s sunscreen use increases phosphate levels in the water by about 55 percent, the team estimates.

The nutrients could make algae grow faster, the authors say. Other marine species might experience the opposite effect: Lab experiments suggested that sunscreen pollution could slow down the growth of small organisms called phytoplankton. — Roberta Kwok | 10 June 2013

Source: Tovar-Sanchez, A. et al. 2013. Sunscreen products as emerging pollutants to coastal waters. PLOS ONE doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0065451.

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