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The U.S. Virgin Islands Bans Potentially Dangerous Sunscreen Chemicals

The science community is still debating these ingredients' effects on the environment.
A reef scene off of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

A reef scene off of St. Croix, U.S. Virgin Islands.

The United States Virgin Islands recently enacted a ban on the importation, sale, and possession of sunscreen products containing the active ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene. These are chemical ultraviolet filters that absorb harmful rays and help prevent skin cancer.

The ban makes the U.S. Virgin Islands the first jurisdiction compliant with the Food and Drug Administration's recently issued monograph noting that only two sunscreen active ingredients, the minerals zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, have been recognized as safe and effective. Oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene are among the 12 chemicals for which the FDA has requested additional industry data in order to determine their safety and effectiveness.

The ban is also intended to help curb sunscreen pollution that damages coral reef ecosystems and reduces their resiliency to climate change, as some research has indicated.

The Virgin Islands' ban, like the bans in Hawaii and Key West, Florida, is largely rooted in a 2015 study that demonstrated these harmful effects. The study, published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, is titled "Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands."

"Sunscreen pollution, and especially the chemicals of oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate, can poison coral reefs so that a next generation of corals and fish can never be established, ultimately giving rise to ruined seascape," Craig Downs, executive director of Haereticus Environmental Laboratory and the principal author of the 2015 study, said in a statement. "The people, the tourism industry, and elected representatives of the Virgin Islands have taken an audacious measure to reduce the destructive aspects of sunscreen pollution and to conserve and restore their coral reefs.”

The U.S. Virgin Islands is a popular tourist destination where swimmers and snorkelers can come in close proximity to coral reefs, so any potential reef damage could impact the jurisdiction's economy.

"Tourism-based economies will experience financial devastation if coral reefs and other marine life cannot recover," Harith Wickrema, president of the Island Green Living Association, said in a press release. "The ripple effect would be huge and we need to take action now."

As I reported in April of 2019, some marine scientists are critical of the research behind these bans, arguing that the experimental conditions were unrealistic, and that other factors, such as rising water temperatures, pose much bigger threats to coral reefs than sunscreen:

"I've seen online people wearing T-shirts [that say] 'Save the reef, ban sunscreens.' Those people could well be tourists who have flown to Miami for a holiday," [Terry] Hughes [director of the Australian Research Council Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Australia] says. "The irony there is the personal fossil fuel footprint of people is part of the problem. You can't deal with one tiny issue and tick a box to say 'problem solved.' But I think that's exactly what's happening in some places."

Howard Forbes Jr., Saint Thomas coordinator for the Virgin Islands Marine Advisory Service, says the sunscreen ban is a good start to preventing coral reef damage, but he too would like to see the Virgin Islands government address other factors—including sedimentation, climate change, and overfishing—that are contributing to coral damage.

Forbes also speculates that eliminating chemical sunscreens from the market will raise the price of already expensive mineral sunscreens. Since many goods need to be imported to the U.S. Virgin Islands, a bottle of chemical-based sunscreen can cost at least $15 to $20, and a bottle of mineral sunscreen can cost $30–a luxury many people in his community cannot afford, he says.

"We already live along the equator, so we're at the prime spot where it's very hot," Forbes notes, "and we may end up seeing an increase in skin cancer as a result of us trying to do something good for the environment."

The first stage of the Virgin Islands ban, which prevents the importation of sunscreen containing these chemicals, will take effect on December 31st, 2019. The sale and distribution of these sunscreens will be banned after March 30th, 2020, and the possession of these sunscreens will completely banned after January 1st, 2021.