Some Sunscreens Are Now Banned at Thailand’s Marine Parks for Good Reason

Violators face a maximum fine of about $3,000.
August 5, 2021, 10:40am
Thailand c
In this underwater photo taken on August 17, 2020 large corals are seen in an artificial reef set up for marine conservation in Koh Tao island in the Gulf of Thailand. Photo: Romeo GACAD / AFP

Thailand has banned certain types of sunscreens in a bid to protect coral reefs off its pristine beaches and islands, following moves by other locales where the lotions have been blamed for environmental damage.

The new law, which prohibits products with four chemical compounds shown to cause corals to bleach or whiten in response to stressful conditions, came into effect on Wednesday. Violators face a maximum fine of about $3,000. 

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Corals are an essential part of the marine ecosystem, but climate change and rising sea temperatures have caused “bleaching” in reefs across the world, a process that turns the once-colorful habitats into skeleton-like wastelands. Coral bleaching is reversible if stress levels are decreased quickly. If not, the corals could starve to death.

“We've actually collected a lot of scientific data about how these chemicals can harm our coral reefs,” Thailand’s Office of National Parks director Dumras Phoprasit told VICE World News. “We’ve been talking about introducing this measure for a while now.”

Dumras said the policy was propelled by the private sector of Thailand’s tourist industry, which has long been concerned about environmental damage. They hope to preserve Thailand’s renowned marine national parks, which contain some of the most famous beaches in the world. 

The prohibited chemical compounds for sunscreens are Oxybenzone, Octinoxate, 4-Methylbenzylid Camphor, and Butylparaben.

Officials will not confiscate harmful sunscreens from offenders, however. The products will simply be taken away and returned after the owners leave the area. 

All marine national parks in the country have been notified of the new policy and will start publicizing it and informing tour operators soon, Dumras said. Since about 80 percent of tourists who visit these national parks buy package tours, authorities are relying heavily on trip operators to get the word out to foreign travellers. 

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"Sunscreen with these chemicals can be used in other areas like private resorts, just not in the national parks,” Dumras added. “These natural resources belong to the public, not one individual person. We’re trying to preserve it for everyone.” 

The pandemic has given coral reefs a much-needed respite from the millions of international tourists who normally visit Thailand’s beaches. The new rules on sunscreens are coming into place some two months ahead of a planned reopening of the country to international travel. 

Palau became the first country to prohibit reef-toxic sunscreen in 2018, and other countries and territories soon followed. Hawaii, the US Virgin Islands, and the Dutch Caribbean island of Bonaire have announced similar bans, according to the BBC.

“I think this is a huge step for Thailand that we’re now at the forefront of innovation, in terms of legislation to protect the environment, in the world,” said Jeen Snidvongs, an underwater photographer and co-founder of KAANI—a reef-safe sunscreen.

Although other countries have already introduced sunscreen bans, how those regulations are implemented varies from place to place, he pointed out. Still, he called Thailand’s new resolve a “good start.”

Jeen also emphasized the importance of raising awareness about the harmful effects of these chemicals.

“Thailand is world-renowned for our beaches and our islands. Coral reefs are truly one of our treasures,” Jeen said. “I think when you tell people, it’s not difficult for them to understand as long as there’s a good option of sunscreen for them to use instead.”

Follow Teirra Kamolvattanavith on Twitter.