World Ocean Day – Save Our Marine Life – 95% Of Sunscreen Is Damaging To Marine Life, Husband & Wife Team & Founders Of People4Ocean Explain The Global Problem
People4Ocean (P4O) is an Australian-based company working at fighting the global coral crisis through innovative strategies and is now branching into both the UK and Europe. P4O offers sustainable consultancy services in coral reef management and expertise in coral reef rehabilitation. Their founders are a franco-australian couple – Louise Laing and Austin Laing-Herbert – who lived at Amitié (Praslin) for over two years, leading the coral restoration program for the NGO Nature Seychelles. Fighting for Seychelles’ coral reefs was their way-of-life. They believe Seychelles has a privileged chance to be a leader in the preservation of coral reefs, by focusing on mitigating impacts from climate change, and now, sunscreen pollution. With products now available in stores and hotel across the Seychelles, we talk with them about their range and their incredible global work.
Why did you decide to launch People4Ocean and can you give some insight into the work you do?
I co-founded People4Ocean Sun Care with my husband Austin Laing-Herbert a couple years ago. Austin and I met in 2012 on the Great Barrier Reef while studying coral reefs and tropical ecosystems at James Cook University in Townsville. In 2015 with our Master Degree in hand, we travelled to the Indian Ocean to coordinate a USAID funded, large-scale reef rehabilitation project in Seychelles with a local non-for-profit organisation. In 2016, we witnessed the devastating impacts of climate change, as our restored reef (about 24,000 corals transplanted over a football field size area) was nearly wiped out by mass coral bleaching. We dedicated the following year to “growing our reef” back to life, by propagating corals that had survived the heat wave. Already back then, we were determined to do all we could to protect these ecosystems most at risk, and raise awareness on the coral reef crisis. We made the protection of coral reefs our “way-of-life”.
The idea for People4Ocean Sun Care followed scientific findings on the impacts of sunscreen ingredients on marine ecosystems and coral reefs. As sunscreen leaches off your skin – in the shower or swimming in the ocean – and washes off into rivers, lakes and oceans, the chemicals interact in insidious ways on aquatic life. Experiments performed by the University of Hawaii found that common UV-filters have lethal impacts on coral reefs, from DNA damage to increased sensitivity to bleaching.
These findings revealed the toxic nature of 97% of sunscreens on the market, but they also shown the light on yet another source of stress inflicted on reef ecosystems already threatened globally by climate change, land use, predator invasions and overfishing.
We were not sunscreen lovers to start with. All the sunscreens we could find were filled with toxic ingredients, unpleasant to use and harsh on the skin. In 2018, we returned to Australia, determined to raise awareness on this issue and set out on a journey to create sun care solutions genuinely good for us and harmless to ocean life.
We created People4Ocean Sun Care with a simple intention: to end sunscreen pollution in our oceans and within our bodies. Most of all, we wanted to bring pleasure back in applying sunscreen! In Australia, a country where rates of skin cancer and coral bleaching are at record high, we took the challenge of addressing skin and oceanic wellness hand-in-hand. We joined forces with skincare brand LaGaia Unedited to create a one-of-a-kind sun system eco-consciously formulated to protect the most sensitive skin and while preserving natural ecosystems. The P4O range offers a true skin & ocean-conscious experience, by combining the best ingredients from the spa industry and excluding all toxins found in mainstream sunscreens. We also don’t dilute our sunscreens with water or synthetic fillers, resulting in a concentrated and long-lasting protection.
Since its origins, People4Ocean has committed to its fundamental core – Protect More Than Your Skin™ – by donating a percentage of all sales towards reef conservation initiatives. We believe our sun care products – and the people that use them – can be a driving force to help preserve reefs worldwide. With P4O, applying sunscreen goes beyond personal care, it is a promise to your long-term health and to the future of our oceans.
What motivated you to develop the P4O reef safe sunscreen range? How exactly do normal sunscreens adversely affect coral and marine life?
We just couldn’t understand how an everyday product that is supposed to protect people could have so many health and environmental drawbacks. Ingredients in sunscreens should not be irritating or cause skin allergies, nor should they enter the bloodstream or harm coral reefs. For example, Oxybenzone and Octinoxate are common UV-filters characterized as ‘Hazardous to the aquatic environment, with long-term hazard by the United Nations Global Harmonized System (GHS). And yet, 97% of sunscreens and cosmetics on the market contain these ingredients. What if something as simple as making the switch to healthy sun protection could solve the problem?
In 2018, the state of Hawaii was first in history to ban the sale of sunscreens containing Oxybenzone and Octinoxate to protect its coral reefs. This state-wide bill was voted following a study by Downs et al. (2015) quantifying sunscreen impacts on coral fragments and coral polyps, showing death at certain concentrations. Their testing showed that exposure to Oxybenzone can inhibit and alter the growth of baby corals, is toxic to seven coral species and is likely to induce coral bleaching in the wild, further increasing our reefs sensitivity to threats like climate change.
Oxybenzone and Octinoxate may also bio-accumulate and be biomagnified in organisms. Biomagnification means they may increase in concentration in the tissues of organisms as it travels up the food chain. A number of aquatic and marine species have been discovered to be contaminated, from carp, catfish, eel, white fish, trout, barb, chub, perch and mussels to coral, mahi-mahi, dolphins, sea turtle eggs, and migratory bird eggs. Finally, additional testings have revealed Oxybenzone also acts as an endocrine disruptor on marine invertebrates such as shrimps and bivalves. Other ingredients commonly found in cosmetics – such as butylparaben, octocrylene and a chemical called 4MBC – have proven highly toxic to marine life. You can find the full list at www.haereticus-lab.org. These findings show that sunscreen pollution should be addressed as an environmental hazard.
Humans are not exempt from these impacts. In recent FDA testings, all non-mineral sunscreen chemicals [oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and avobenzone] absorbed into the body and could be measured in blood after just a single use. Previous studied detected several sunscreen ingredients in breast milk and urine samples. By penetrating the skin and entering our bloodstream, these chemicals trigger a cascade of reactions from increased free-radicals in the skin, endocrine disruptive properties in the body and, ironically, enhanced risk of melanoma in cases of sunscreen abuse for intentional sun exposure.
What are the differences between reef safe formulations and normal sunscreens?
Chemical sunscreens contain ingredients that wash off our skins (or down the drain) to harm coral reefs. Using a ‘reef safe sunscreen’ means that no ingredients in that product will cause detrimental effects to marine life. There are no government-regulated certifications for reef-safe sunscreens yet (the research is quite new) so certain brands falsely claim to be “Reef-Safe” despite containing harmful chemicals. It is up to the consumer to read sunscreen labels for toxic ingredients. A reef-safe sunscreen should not include ingredients such as Oxybenzone, Avobenzone, Octinoxate, Octocrylene, Parabens, etc. An easier way to identify reef-safe sunscreens is to choose ones that exclusively use mineral UV-blockers as their active ingredients, such as zinc oxide.
People4Ocean sunscreens exclusively use zinc oxide as the active ingredient for several reasons:
Zinc oxide provides excellent broad-spectrum protection and has several advantages over synthetic actives. Zinc particles are photo-stable (they don’t degrade in sunlight) and sit on top of your skin to act as a reflective barrier (exactly like a mirror), blocking both UVAs & UVBs from penetrating your skin and causing damage and ageing.
It is the only FDA (Food & Drug Administration) and TGA (Therapeutic Goods Administration) approved broad-spectrum sun protection ingredient, and unlike any other active ingredient, its concentration in a product has no limitation. It is also the EWG (Environmental Working Group) nº1 ingredient for sun protection.
Dermatologists recommend zinc oxide sunscreens on children (6 months and over), pregnant women and people with sensitive skin.
It is the only reef-safe UV filter available.
What are the immediate benefits and the long-term benefits of using reef safe formulations like P4O?
There are many benefits in making the switch to reef-safe/ mineral sunscreens.
Firstly, they are better for the skin. That is because reef-safe sunscreens generally exclude harsh chemicals such as benzophenones, parabens, and other skin irritants that are also environmental pollutants. It is no coincidence that baby sunscreens are mineral-based, as they are safer for sensitive skin, have cleaner formulations and offer excellent sun protection.
Secondly, they are a good long-term investment in your health. Natural sunscreens offer excellent broad-spectrum protection without the side effects of chemical sunscreens. According to dermatologists, applying mineral SPF30 sunscreen daily can significantly reduce your chances of developing skin cancer (particularly if you live in Australia) and is the #1 routine you should adopt to effectively prevent premature ageing. Your skin is your largest organ, so it is important to invest on a good sunscreen to protect it.
In addition to reef safe sunscreen, what can people do to make a real difference to the health and wellbeing of our oceans and marine life?
Making the switch to reef-safe sunscreen is a good first step towards helping our oceans and raising awareness for their protection. However, sunscreen pollution is only a very small part of the problem.
Climate change is undeniably the biggest threat to our Oceans. Not many people know this, but our oceans are the true lungs of the Earth as they generate most of the oxygen we breath. They are also are great carbon sink, as they absorb CO2 through photosynthetic processes (by marine plants, such as phytoplankton, kelp and algal planktons). Since the start of the industrial age, our oceans have absorbed over a third of the anthropogenic CO2 released into the atmosphere. But there is a limit to the amount of CO2 and heat our oceans can absorb. From polar regions to kelp forests and coral reefs, the rise in atmospheric CO2 is increasing sea surface temperatures, affecting the dynamic of ocean currents and disrupting ocean chemistry (ocean acidification is one example) with consequences on food chains and more. Governments and industries are often given full responsibility to mitigate climate change, but there are many things individuals can do to make a difference in reducing their own carbon footprint in the way they consume, travel and eat. Simple lifestyle changes such as buying locally made goods, eating locally grown foods, reducing plane travels and cutting your intake of meat and dairy can contribute to reducing global greenhouse gas emissions.
Plastic Pollution comes second on the list of threats compromising the future of marine life. According to a report from the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, plastic in the oceans will outweigh fish by 2050. We can all help by refusing single-use plastics such as straws, cutlery, and food containers (Styrofoam trays, coffee cups, etc.). These are in our lives for seconds, but can then spend centuries circulating in our oceans, causing significant damage to marine life. Promoting recycling and circular economies can also keep plastic from entering our oceans.
Overfishing and poor fisheries management is also high on the list of threats. Almost a third of global fish stocks are overfished. Fish that were once extremely abundant, such as bluefin tuna, are now approaching extinction. Restaurants and seafood markets routinely serve endangered seafood species that are the underwater equivalent of a rhino or a panda. New apps, including Seafood Watch (US) and Goodfish (AUS), can help us steer clear of these endangered species, and select sustainable and healthy seafood choices instead. Cutting down on our consumption of seafood is an even better way to take pressure off fish stocks.
Can you explain how the coral restoration projects you are supporting work?
Over the years working for different non-for-profit organizations, we noticed most projects were starving for funding. This in turn affected their long-term feasibility. With People4Ocean Sun Care, we contribute up to a dollar of all sales towards supporting projects we know have a positive impact in preserving coral reefs. Since our launch, we have been able to support great community-based projects in Fiji and the Seychelles. These projects practice coral gardening by propagating corals that show tolerance to temperature-induced bleaching. This strategy aims to assist coral reefs in their adaptation to climate change.
In addition to sale-based donations, Austin and I continue to provide consultancy services to NGOs and resorts who are undertaking reef conservation and restoration actions. In 2019, we travelled to Fiji and later French Polynesia to donate our time and expertise in designing a community-based restoration strategies with local non-for-profits.
As People4Ocean Sun Care grows internationally, we hope to support a growing number of initiatives in Australia and around the world.