Could banning sunscreen to help save coral do more harm than good?

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Last year, the Pacific nation of Palau announced that, from 2020, it will ban sunscreens containing certain chemicals linked with coral degradation. Tourists will have offending suncreams confiscated and anyone importing them will face a $1,000 (£800) fine. In addition, Hawaii’s ban on sunscreens that contain oxybenzone or octinoxate – the two most controversial chemical compounds – comes into force in 2021, and tourists swimming at certain beauty spots in Mexico are already forbidden from wearing non-biodegradable sunscreens.

If it all sounds pretty serious, that’s because it is. Sunscreen is supposed to be an entirely good thing. Having been a holiday essential since we learned about the damaging effects of UVB – and, later, UVA – rays last century, it is the stuff of nostalgia, adventure and longed-for escapes to warmer climes. News that the coconut-scented creams we have been slathering on for protection could be toxic to the environment is as welcome as a seven-day rainy forecast. So where do we stand with it as we head into summer?

First, the basics. Sunscreens fall into two categories. Chemical sunscreens (also counterintuitively known as “organic” sunscreens) absorb harmful UV rays. Mineral sunscreens (also known as physical sunscreens) create a shield-like layer on top of the skin to deflect them.

The bans focus on some chemical sunscreens, with oxybenzone, one of the most commonly used ingredients, attracting particular ire. A 2015 study by Dr Craig Downs, an expert on the impacts of sunscreens on marine life, suggested that the ingredient (an organic compound also known as benzophenone-3) had a toxic effect on coral even at a concentration equivalent to one drop in 6.5 Olympic-size swimming pools.

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