Coral bleaching in the northern part of the Great Barrier Reef


© Jurgen Freund / Nature Picture Library


On 1st January 2020, many websites breathlessly reported that the Micronesian island of Palau had banned the use and sale of sun products, because they were believed to cause irreversible damage to the coral reef. The news triggered a variety of reactions among readers with some considering it unacceptable to ban sunscreens, while others thought it a highly just action to protect the environment. The news reports, however, were slightly off the mark: in fact, the Palau government’s official decision did not ban all sunscreens, but only certain of their ingredients that appear to contribute to coral bleaching. What’s more, only four of these ingredients are sun filters (oxybenzone, octylmethoxycinnamate, octocrilene and enzacamene). The others are preservatives or disinfectants present in certain personal care products.
Laboratory studies have shown that these ingredients can interfere with the life cycle of the corals and induce bleaching, having harmful effects on other aquatic species as well. An International Coral Reef Initiative (ICRI) report highlights that data are still incomplete and laboratory conditions may not adequately reflect actual conditions where the mass of water might dilute and re-mix the pollutants. The health of the Palau reef is being studied and monitored to collect more accurate data following the restrictions.
And so, our common goal must be to move in greener directions to reconcile human and environmental health. In the meantime, Palau's decision is a pioneer in this perspective.

Federica Grassi