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Eco-friendly Natural Sunscreen Formulated from Microalgae

Sun seekers and beachgoers typically have a tough time choosing the perfect sunscreen for their skin, as the variety of options on the shelves is often overwhelming. Commercial sunscreen products can not only be harsh on sensitive skins, they are also harmful to the environment and have been implicated as a cause of deteriorating coral reefs.

According to a recent study [1], sunscreens contain oxybenzone, the compound that filters UV rays; this chemical compound has also been found in high levels in water samples collected at Hawaiian and Caribbean coral reefs that are popular tourist dive sites. Not only does oxybenzone kill coral, it also damages the DNA structure of adult coral and deforms the DNA of coral larvae. As a result surviving coral does not develop properly.

Most sunblock preparations that are currently on the market function by either forming a physical barrier against the sun’s UV rays or by absorbing them. They typically incorporate natural and/or synthetic compounds to accomplish this. However, most commercial preparations are limited in their effectiveness, pose both an environmental and health risk, and in many cases are unstable. A team of researchers decided to look to nature for the answer to these problems.

The scientists are currently formulating natural sunscreen products made from microalgae — also found in the slimy film that protects fish — to offer a natural sun shield that protects our skin from the sun’s harmful UV rays. These natural sun shields not only offer a valuable alternative that can be used in sunscreens, but they also have potential for being used to protect textiles and other materials used outdoors from the sun’s damaging UV rays.

In a paper published in ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces [2], the researchers outline how they utilized the natural sunscreen molecules from algae, which is also found in mucus of reef fish and other microorganisms that live in shallow ecosystems exposed to UV radiation, and mixed this together with chitosan, a natural polymer extracted from the shells of crustaceans. Tests revealed that these natural materials proved to be environmentally compatible, withstood both light and heat, and were highly efficient at absorbing both UV-A and UV-B radiation.

These results show that microalgae has great promise for being used in developing biocompatible sunscreens to protect humans as well as UV-resistant non-living outdoor materials. The development of sunscreens made from algae promises to be a win-win for ocean lovers and creatures that dwell in the ocean by protecting people and the environment.



References & Further Reading

[1] Toxicopathological 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. C. A. Downs, Esti Kramarsky-Winter, Roee Segal, John Fauth, Sean Knutson, Omri Bronstein, Frederic R. Ciner, Rina Jeger, Yona Lichtenfeld, Cheryl M. Woodley, Paul Pennington, Kelli Cadenas, Ariel Kushmaro, Yossi Loya. Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 2015 DOI: 10.1007/s00244-015-0227-7
[2] Exploiting Mycosporines as Natural Molecular Sunscreens for the Fabrication of UV-Absorbing Green Materials. Susana C. M. Fernandes, Ana Alonso-Varona, Teodoro Palomares, Verónica Zubillaga, Jalel Labidi, Vincent Bulone. ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces, 2015; 150724095913009 DOI: 10.1021/acsami.5b04064
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