ST. THOMAS — Sunscreen is a staple in anyone’s beach bag, but while you protect yourself from the sun, you may be harming the very ocean you are enjoying.
Many sunscreens contain one of two chemicals, oxybenzone and octinoxate, that scientists have concluded are harmful to coral reefs and marine life, contributing to coral bleaching, damaging DNA in adult coral and deforming coral larvae DNA. It takes just a single drop in the equivalent of six and a half Olympic-size swimming pools to make the water toxic. Collectively, the number are even worse. Anywhere from 14,000 to 16,000 tons of sunscreen are washed off into the ocean worldwide each year, according to Sean Shanks, director of business for Caribbean Sol.
Caribbean Sol produces a sunscreen without these harmful chemicals Shanks said.
“These two chemicals, by not being biodegradable, come off your skin when you jump in the water and they sink like a rock down to the bottom,” Shanks said. “When they fall on the coral reefs, they bleach the algae, which is the food source, which means the coral starves. You can jump in the water with these chemical sunscreens on and you can see a haze-like film around you. That’s all these chemicals washing off. When you jump in the water and there is a rainbow film dancing around your body, that should be a warning sign right there. Why would people want to willingly put that on their kids or even themselves?”
Legislation has passed banning sunscreens using the chemicals in Hawaii by 2021, and Sean’s sister Brooke Strasser, the company’s sales and marketing representative, took part in the legislative process in Key West, Fla., passing a similar bill.
Sean’s father, Bruce Shanks, president of Caribbean Sol, based in Orlando, Fla., formulated the idea of a reef-safe sunscreen while on St. Thomas 20 years ago, where he had expanded his Florida-based pool and beach concession business. Even then, the boating community had realized that sunscreen was affecting the marine life.
Shanks began to think about what his boating buddies said, and came to the realization that the chemicals in a lot of sunscreens are really nothing but acid-based ingredients, and that, plus the radiation from the sun, equals a chemical burn.
Shank enlisted the help of a microbiologist to formulate a biodegradable sunscreen. Getting natural ingredients was easy. Getting them to work together was not. After much trial and error, they found tropical plant extracts that “lived with one another” and blended with the zinc and food grade oil they used for the preservatives.
The Shanks have introduced their product in Hawaii, Florida and Mexico.
“Some of the work I did in Maui was collaboration with some of the main boating companies, providing them with reef safe sunscreens in gallon jugs at cost,” said Sean. “We ended up with 90 percent of the boating excursions carrying our product, giving it to their guests when they go boating on tours. What that led to is the retail stores backing the boating community, so when they come off the boat, it doesn’t stop there. They want to be able to promote the use of this sunscreen for the duration of their guests’ stay. We’re not here just to sell sunscreen. We’re here to really promote and make people aware of what’s going on,” said Sean.
According to Frederic Larue, global director of sales, Caribbean Sol is now being sold on St. Thomas at a handful of stores, including Captain’s Corner, and it’s starting to catch on. Spencer Consolvo, who operates the stores with his mother Linda, joined the Caribbean Sol team as the sales manager for St. Thomas to grow the business. They have plans to branch out to St. John.
By May, Caribbean Sol will be announcing another step in their reef safe efforts. The packaging and cap for their sunscreen will be switched to a biodegradable resin made of sugar cane rather than plastic.
“I was talking to a lifeguard at Magens Bay and he told me that there used to be a lot of fish but not anymore, because of the sunscreen. They can’t get near the beach anymore because it’s too toxic, so this is a real issue,” said Larue. “The good news is, it can be curbed. They could implement a sunscreen policy and sunscreen sustainability program just like Hawaii. It took 20 years to get here. You can reverse this with a 20-year goal, starting with Magens Bay, to remove the offending product. It won’t be overnight, but can you imagine 20 years from now sitting on the beach as it used to be?”
“It’s not the whole reason for coral damage, but it’s a factor that we as humans can take care of right away just by making this change,” said Sean. “Anything we can do as a human race that is really simple as far as a natural sunscreen, why not do it so the next people coming in can have these luxurious views as well.”
For more information visit Caribbean-Sol.com.