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No proven link between the use of UV filters and damage to coral in our seas

16 May 2019

You may have read reports questioning the use of sunscreens because of claims they can adversely affect the environment and in particular, coral.  CTPA understands that this could cause confusion.  We’d like to provide some facts to help consumers have confidence in their sunscreens.

It is important to note that the study1, upon which the stories and the legislation banning certain UV filters in Hawaii and Florida was based, does not reflect what happens in nature.  The study was carried out in a laboratory under artificial conditions, and does not replicate what is happening in the real world.  In addition, regions of the world where most severe coral bleaching has occurred do not match human population density2.  We can state that this study does not, and cannot, make a link between the use of UV filters in sun cream and damage to coral in our seas. 

The deterioration of coral reefs around the world is a major concern.  The factors that contribute to it are very complex and it is widely acknowledged within the scientific community that extreme climate events and warming sea temperatures are the major contributing factors3.   

However, we do know that over exposure to the sun has detrimental effects on human health

Concerns have been expressed by the medical and dermatological community that unfounded fears of the negative impact of sunscreen on coral health can lead to an increased risk of skin cancer2. The American Academy of Dermatology Association has stated “claims that sunscreen ingredients currently approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration are toxic to the environment or a hazard to human health have not been proven. Furthermore, scientific evidence supports the benefits of applying sunscreen to minimize short- and long-term damage to the skin from the sun’s harmful ultraviolet rays.” 

Ingredient safety

Consumers can feel confident in safely using cosmetic products that contain UV filters because not only is there robust cosmetic law, but there is also strict legislation that covers substances that could cause harm in certain circumstances. 

Each chemical placed on the EU market is covered by strict legal requirements that ensure a high level of protection for both human and environmental health.  

As well as the safety of its ingredients and products, the cosmetics industry also takes sustainability and the environment seriously.  Companies look at environmental effects such as how much energy is used, how much water, how much waste is produced, and what damage is caused obtaining raw materials and turning them into cosmetic ingredients and products. 

Cosmetic Products and the Law

In the UK and across the EU sunscreens are classed as cosmetic products. Cosmetic products are covered by robust safety legislation, the EU Cosmetic Products Regulation 1223/2009 (CPR).   

All cosmetic products, including sunscreens, placed on the UK and European market must comply with these strict laws which are in place to ensure human safety and to protect consumers from misleading claims concerning efficacy and other characteristics of cosmetic products. 

The CPR stipulates the requirements, including manufacture, labelling, ingredients and safety assessment for cosmetic products, and the main aim of the CPR is consumer safety.  In order to ensure this, each cosmetic product must undergo a safety assessment by a qualified and experienced safety assessor (whose qualifications are stated in the CPR) before it is made available for sale. The safety assessment takes account of all the ingredients used in the product, how the product will be used, by whom, where and how often. 

There are three layers to the safety assurance process:

  • European legislation requires cosmetics to be safe.
  • The professional Safety Assessor personally signs-off to say the cosmetic product is safe.
  • Products placed on the market are monitored; any adverse reactions are addressed by companies and may have to be reported to the authorities.

The CPR also controls what may or may not be put in a cosmetic.  There are lists of substances that must not be present and lists of substances that may be used as ingredients subject to particular restrictions.  In addition, certain classes of ingredients (colours, UV filters and preservatives) are part of positive lists, so only those individual ingredients pre-approved, following an in-depth safety review by a panel of independent scientists, and listed in the CPR are allowed for these purposes. 

Environmental considerations 

In addition to this, ingredients are subject to the European chemicals legislation, REACH (Registration, Evaluation & Authorisation of Chemicals Regulation) which looks at the safety and environmental aspects of all chemicals placed on the EU market – including cosmetic ingredients.   

Studies

1Toxicopathological 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. 
Downs, C.A. et al. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, published online 20 October 2015.

2Oxybenzone and Sunscreens: A Critical Review of the Evidence and a Plan for Discussion with Patients
Mirsky R. S. et al The Journal of Cutaneous Medicine 2, 2018

3Global warming impairs stock–recruitment dynamics of corals
Hughes T. P. et al Nature 568, 2019 

Read more about the importance of using sun protection products as part of staying #sunsafe

Sun protection – what you need to know

Sun protection myths

Protecting children from the sun

Choosing the right product