How Human Makeup Turns Marine Life Ugly

Written by Sofia Perez 

Edited by Danielle Moloney

In the midst of a worldwide chemical imbalance in the world’s oceans, there are a few questions we can ask ourselves to determine an appropriate response: First, does it matter? (Yes, it does.) Second, what is the source of the problem? Third, what is an economically and socially viable compromise?

While, of course, there is a daunting range of sources from which unwanted chemicals flow into the sea, let’s hone in on one which we interact with on a daily- and perhaps even hourly- basis: cosmetics. Let’s zoom in a little further to one of the biggest super-villains of this bunch: oxybenzone, also known as benzophenone-3(BP-3). 

Haereticus, haereticus-lab.org/oxybenzone-2/. Accessed 9 Aug. 2021. Model of Oxybenzone.

Yes, oxybenzone is one of the biggest baddies faced by marine invertebrates, phytoplankton, and perhaps even humans (more on that later!). But before we slash it to smithereens using the noble sword of literary prowess, we must first pay it some homage. Indeed, it does serve a purpose and, admittedly, is good at its job. 

So what does oxybenzone do? In essence, it’s a bit like sunscreen, and works to prevent ultraviolet (UV) rays from reaching the skin. This is important because UV rays contain a lot of energy and can cause genetic mutations or skin cancer. In general, UV filters are ingredients that absorb or reflect UV rays, which helps to protect products and their ingredients as well as packaging. In fact, sometimes UV filters are even used to protect hair color. 

It is for this reason that oxybenzone can be found in so many products(*depending on the brand*), just a few of which are listed in the following table:

Lip ProductsHair productsWhole Body ProductsMakeupOther
LipstickHair sprayBody sprayFragranceSunscreen SPF 15+
Lip GlossConditionerBody washFoundationFacial Moisturizer/Treatment
ShampooBody MistNail PolishTanning Oil

So to recap, oxybenzone is one of the most prolific ingredients in modern-day cosmetics. Yet isn’t it also one of the most damaging ingredients- even for humans? The answer to this question is arguably more disturbing even than a simple “yes” or “no”. According to the FDA, “There is a need for more rigorous and systematic research…when users apply sunscreen as directed on the label.” The Center for Disease Control (CDC), however, seemed to be leaning toward a “yes”, illustrating in their fourth national report on human exposure to environmental chemicals that approximately 97% of the people from whom the data was taken had oxybenzone present in their urine. Independent scientists had also reported various concentrations in waterways and fish worldwide. 

However, the impacts of oxybenzone go beyond just being a ubiquitous, omnipresent entity. In phytoplankton, for instance, it has been found to inhibit growth in a freshwater environment. In swimming pools and wastewater treatment plants it can even react with chlorine to produce hazardous by-products. As for the aforementioned marine invertebrates, it can cause coral bleaching, DNA damage, planula deformity(i.e. deforming the larva of various Cnidarians), mortality, and even disruption to the skeletal or endocrine system. 

Ultimately, this all comes down to the fact that oxybenzone is a photo-toxicant, especially in the presence of UV light. This means that at higher light intensities, new levels of toxicity are attained and cause greater damage. However, because this ingredient is approved by the FDA, it is still used in many products, leaving the responsibility to the consumer to avoid the ingredient. On a larger scale, this problem can be summarised by the notion that there are simply “too many substances and not enough data”. 

So what are the costs of still using shampoos, sunscreens, or lipsticks which contain oxybenzone? Besides the previously mentioned health risks, the economic threat of losing valuable aquatic ecosystems is high. To name a few, a decline in oysters, fish, and coral reefs can lead to job and income loss, a decrease in tourism, and money loss in aquaculture. 

Fortunately, though, there is a growing number of alternatives to harsh chemical products. For example, mineral sunscreens use alternative UV-blocking ingredients such as zinc oxide or, less commonly, titanium dioxide, which are less harmful than oxybenzone. The only downside is the need to reapply more frequently. In addition to sunscreen, mineral makeup can also offer a rich variety of eco-friendly and socioeconomically positive options for consumers who want to evade the uncertainty that comes with oxybenzone or other harmful ingredients (e.g. parabens, phthalates, formaldehyde, etc.)

“Chemicals in Some Sunscreens Can Damage the Ocean.” Marine Safe, Accessed 9 Aug. 2021.

Nonetheless, the world of ecotoxicology is ripe for further study and is also extremely important in order to evade and mitigate the effects of lost or damaged aquatic ecosystems. Additionally, consumer responsibility and awareness is crucial in order to slow down the impacts of chemical pollution as well as prevent any adverse health effects. Thus, while oxybenzone is one of the baddies of the cosmetic industry, like in (almost) every good superhero film, it can be conquered. 

Bibliography:

“Chemicals in Some Sunscreens Can Damage the Ocean.” Marine Safe, http://www.marinesafe.org/the-problem/marine-toxic-ingredients-in-personal-care-products/. Accessed 9 Aug. 2021.

DiNardo, Joseph C, and Craig A Downs. “Dermatological and Environmental Toxicological Impact of the Sunscreen Ingredient Oxybenzone/Benzophenone-3.” Journal of Cosmetic Dermatology, vol. 17, no. 1, 31 Oct. 2017, pp. 15–19, 10.1111/jocd.12449.

Emma. “Oxybenzone (BP-3, Benzophenone-3).” Environmental Emma, 23 June 2020, environmentalemma.org/oxybenzone-bp-3-benzophenone-3/. Accessed 4 Aug. 2021.

Fitriani. “20 Economic Effects of Ocean Pollution.” DeepOceanFacts.com, DeepOceanFacts.com, 10 Jan. 2018, deepoceanfacts.com/economic-effects-of-ocean-pollution.

Guest Blogger. “Is Your Sunscreen Killing the Coral Reef? – Ocean Conservancy.” Ocean Conservancy, 18 Dec. 2018, oceanconservancy.org/blog/2018/05/24/sunscreen-killing-coral-reef/.

Hopkins, June. “Safe Cosmetics: What’s in Your Bathroom Cabinet? |.” OliveRestaurants, 26 July 2021, oliverestaurants.uk.com/safe-cosmetics-whats-in-your-bathroom-cabinet/. Accessed 4 Aug. 2021.

“List of Products.” MarineSafe, http://www.marinesafe.org/science-and-data/list-of-products/.

“Marine Pollutants.” MarineSafe, http://www.marinesafe.org/science-and-data/marine-pollutants-identified-by-science/.

“Marine-Toxic Ingredients in Personal Care Products – MarineSafe.” MarineSafe, 2016, http://www.marinesafe.org/the-problem/marine-toxic-ingredients-in-personal-care-products/.

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