Sunscreen Awareness Bonaire- Moving towards a oxybenzone free island

Wageningen Marine Research (WMR) and Boneiru Duradero (BD) supported by World Wide Fund for Nature the Netherlands (WWF-NL)organised a Sunscreen Awareness Conference, on March 21st 2018, inviting stakeholders from the government, NGO’s and tourism sector on Bonaire to participate. The goal of the conference was twofold:

1.         Educate participants about international sunscreen research and the studies that were implemented on Bonaire. 

2.         Create “buy-in” and create partnerships by engaging stakeholders to develop an island wide sunscreen strategy for Bonaire. 

The conference started with a presentation by Diana Slijkerman (WMR), to inform participants on international sunscreen research and the studies that were implemented on Bonaire. Sunscreen research is relatively new and still ongoing, but one thing is very clear: the UV-filter oxybenzone has been identified as the major “culprit” harming corals. 

Studies done in 2016 and 2017 on Bonaire showed that UV filters from sunscreens are present in the water of Lac Bay at levels that cannot exclude environmental effects on the organisms in the highly valuable ecosystems. The latest study also included nearly 400 interviews among beach goers on Sorobon, asking the tourists where they are from, what sunscreen products they use, and whether or not it includes oxybenzone. Although the study was indicative, UV-filter levels and thus environmental risk seem to be related to tourist intensity, country of origin and product use. The levels of oxybenzone found in water samples were higher when more beachgoers used oxybenzone-products. These tourists, predominantly cruise tourists, were mostly originating from the US. Stay-over tourists from the EU show a relatively limited use of oxybenzone-based sunscreen products. 

Dr. Slijkerman’s problem analyses made clear that sunscreen pollution is neither the biggest nor the only threat to coral reefs. Climate change, overfishing and eutrophication are the main drivers of the degradation of our reefs for the last decades. However, impaired water quality by chemicals such as UV filters adds to the problems of already stressed reefs which undermines their resilience and ability to withstand and recover from e.g. global warming related impacts. 

Although not studied extensively, international scientist claim that sunscreen products containing UV-filters based on zinc and titanium are better alternatives. A positive and clear action perspective on the local scale makes it possible to improve water quality in order to make reefs more resilient. 

Participants of the sunscreen conference agreed on the clear action perspective. “When we convince tourists on Bonaire to use sunscreens without oxybenzone, every swimmer, snorkeler and diver can contribute to the improvement of water quality today” Sharon Bol says.  

There was a general consensus among all participants that action should be taken on Bonaire concerning potentially harmful sunscreens. The attendees of the conference participated in a lively discussion, and the following paths forward were identified:

1.         Legal ban of oxybenzone-containing products.

2.         Changing consumer behaviour.

3.         An environmental tax for cruise tourist.

Representatives from the tourism sector were mostly in favour of a legal ban. They feel that a legal ban on the UV-filter oxybenzone will make it easier to convince their customers of the harmful impact of sunscreens to our reef. In contrast, most NGO’s and members of the government are opposed to a ban. They have concerns about the feasibility. In the first place, it would be very difficult to build a legal framework that covers all arguments. Enforcement would also be an issue: “We could try to prohibit the sale of sunscreens with oxybenzone on Bonaire, but it is impossible to control the sunscreen products tourists bring from home”. A rule in the Bonaire National Marine Parkmanagement plan could, however, strengthen the communication about the subject. 

The solution for reducing impact of sunscreens on the reef is largely connected to behavioural change. It is as simple as avoiding sunscreens with oxybenzone. That is why most participants of the sunscreen conference viewed awarenessas the best way to move forward. Moreover, an awareness campaign can be implemented much faster than a law. Another advantage of sunscreen awareness is that it can help to reinforce Bonaire’s positioning on the “vacation market”. After all, we are striving to be a sustainable island. Participants agreed unanimously that there is a positive and clear action perspective. WMR and BD are in the process of developing communication materials for an island wide awareness campaign. This includes an educational poster and an animation video that should educate tourists and inhabitants on Bonaire about the effect that sunscreens with the UV-filter oxybenzone can have on corals.

The informative poster was finalised using the participants inputs, and distributed among dive shops and supermarkets. The online artwork of the poster reached 35.000 people through Facebook. The animation was also launched online and had 5000 views. It could be promoted further e.g. via Tourist TV and TV screens at airport, in hotel lobbies and restaurants. 

The fact that cruise tourists do not pay any feefor the use of the marine park is a concern to most participants of the sunscreen conference. Stay-over tourists and other users of the marine park pay an annual fee of 10 USD for water activities such as swimming or bathing but cruise tourists don’t have to pay. Since cruise tourists that enter Bonaire’s sea attribute to the decreased water quality too, an environmental tax for cruise ship visitors should be considered. This tax would allow Bonaire to continually fund awareness campaigns, educating tourists about the use of sunscreens and the unique value of Bonaire’s coral reefs. Most importantly is that the cruise sector has to be engaged, on a strategic island level. Cruise tourists  should be made aware of the unique quality of Bonaire’s nature and the fact that they are visiting protected areas. Furthermore, they should be informed NOT to bring oxybenzone-sunscreens to Bonaire while booking their trip.  

During the conference, many remarks and questions were brought into the lively discussion. Among many things it was argued whether or not the current law already provides us the ability to prevent the use of oxybenzone inside the Bonaire National Marine Parkvia a revision or addition in the marine park management plan. The urgent need for more research was also expressed. Research should focus on additional water quality monitoring, and potential levels and effects of current proposed alternatives such as zinc and titanium. The conference concluded with a list of action points and possible opportunities for island-wide cooperation.

Soon after the conference, several positive steps forward were made by the public and private sector on Bonaire. Van den Tweel Supermarket Bonaire is one of the first supermarkets on Bonaire that removed sunscreens with the UV-filter Oxybenzone from their assortment. Furthermore, Jibe City did not hesitate and switched to selling a different brand of sunscreen. And, inspired by the recent decision of Hawaii to ban harmful sunscreens, the Island Council unanimously adopted a motion calling for a ban per January 1, 2021 for sunscreen product containing oxybenzone and octinoxate. The team is willing to share their knowledge and contribute to the steps to be taken in the process that lies ahead. 

Coming year, the project team goes ahead with the Sunscreen Awareness project, focusing on both remaining research topics and awareness raising via various media. 

Questions and remarks? Please contact the team via: and

We thank Sabine Engel (STINAPA Bonaire), Olivier Kramer and Carolyn Caporusso for their assistance and support. 

This news-tem was published by DCNA in BioNews 15-2018

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