Is Algae the Future of Sunscreen?
algae sunscreen

Scientists are looking to the ultraviolet light-blocking compounds produced by marine organisms as potential replacements for the current chemicals used in sunscreens. Photo by Lesterman/Shutterstock

Jea Morris writes in that scientists are sourcing new ultraviolet ray-blocking compounds from algae, seaweed, cyanobacteria, and other marine creatures with the hope of designing a more environmentally friendly sunscreen.

In 2016, Craig Downs, an ecotoxicologist at Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, presented his and his colleagues’ finding that oxybenzone, a common ultraviolet (UV) ray-blocking ingredient in sunscreens, disrupts larval coral and makes reefs more susceptible to bleaching. The announcement caused what had been a ripple of concern about sunscreen safety into a tidal wave.

The attention has fueled scientists’ search for the next generation of sunscreens — ones that are more environmentally friendly and, potentially, more effective.

The ocean is teeming with sun care solutions. Many microalgae and cyanobacteria produce carotenoids that protect against UVA rays. Some cyanobacteria secrete free radical scavengers and physical barriers to UV light such as scytonemin. Then there are the anti-photoaging, UVB-absorbing polyphenols produced by sea cucumbers, algae, seagrasses, and mangroves.

One of the most well-studied classes of compounds being considered by sunscreen manufacturers is mycosporine-like amino acids (MAAs). MAAs are ubiquitous: algae, fungi, and cyanobacteria all make the nitrogen-based compounds. 

In Europe, some sun care brands are already testing the waters with sunscreens based on these new compounds. Ingredient manufacturers Mibelle Biochemistry and Gelyma, for instance, have launched new sunscreen filters based on MAAs from red algae.

But in the United States and Canada, where sunscreens are treated as over-the-counter drugs, not cosmetics like in most European countries, a more stringent regulatory environment makes it harder for new sunscreens to be approved. Typically, the process takes up to six years and costs about US$5 million.

Other obstacles remain to bringing them to market. For marine economist Miguel Quiroga, at the Universidad de Concepción in Chile, there is a real concern that turning to these compounds could exact a heavy toll on the coastal environment and local communities. As an example, he points to the damage caused when the demand for seaweed cosmeceuticals surged in the early 2000s. The rush for seaweed denuded Chile’s coastline, which was only able to recover after a government program started subsidizing fishermen to cultivate and restore the algae.

While positive about the potential boost to local living standards that a growing market for marine sunscreens could bring, Dr. Quiroga urges caution: “You have to equilibrate the use of these resources with the possibility of doing this in a sustainable way.”

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