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Cowichan watershed users encouraged to make safer sunscreen selections

Lake Cowichan's Tube Shack will be providing free environmentally friendly sunscreen to their customers this summer

The weather is heating up which means tubing season and other fun in the sun water activities are just around the corner, as is the hot topic of what sunscreens are not only safe for your skin, but also aquatic life.

Concerns raised about the impacts of UV filters from sunscreens and personal care products (PCPs) on the Cowichan River, due to the increase in human recreation on the water, led to the The BC Conservation Foundation embarking on the project 'Investigating Impacts of Ultraviolet Filters on the Cowichan River Ecosystem' back in 2019.  

From 2019 to 2022, 398 water samples were collected as well as 13 sediment samples in 2022. Concentrations of contaminants from sunscreens at both the drinking water intake and wastewater outflows were reported low to undetectable and of no concern, and there was also no detection of UV filter's in the sediments.

Testing did conclude that the compounds oxybenzone, octinoxate, octisalate, and enzacamene were present in water samples from various beaches and swim sites.

"The number of people in the water correlates to the concentrations of UV filters found in the water," said Jessie Paras, a junior biologist with the BC Conservation Foundation's Aquatic Research and Restoration Centre (ARRC) in Nanaimo, and the lead on the project since the spring of 2023.

While all concentrations of all four compounds were generally below acute toxic levels for aquatic live, that doesn't mean measures shouldn't be taken to lessen or eliminate the contaminants. While long-term chronic exposure of PCPs and UVFs to aquatic life is still not well understood, it is definitely not beneficial, Paras said.

Species of fish that swim through the Cowichan Watershed during the peak times of water recreation include resident coastal cutthroat trout, rainbow trout, brown trout, coho salmon, three-spined stickleback, and sculpins. There are other species that live in these areas as well such as freshwater mussels, invertebrates like mayfly, caddisfly, and stonefly larvae, and aquatic plants. So while it's vital to apply sunscreen when enjoying time on or in the water, it is equally important to be selective. 

"There is some debate in the literature over the persistence time of different UVFs, once they’ve entered the water. Their fate and residence time is not well understood," said Paras.

Paras said that other studies, however, have shown the bioaccumulation of UVFs in aquatic organisms so UVFs might have a lasting impact on salmonids in Cowichan. She said many UVFs are known to impact hormonal and reproductive activity in several aquatic species. So, when looking for products to protect your skin this summer people should avoid sunscreens with chemical UV filters.

"There are many different compounds that exist but the most common ones you will see are oxybenzone, octocrylene, octisalate, octinoxate, homosalate, avobenzone," said Paras. "These ingredients protect us from UV rays, but they can harm aquatic life. Hawaii has banned the sale of sunscreens with four of these compounds."

A better product option for aquatic life would be any mineral sunscreen as it avoids the chemical UV filters, while the best alternative would be a non-nano mineral sunscreen. 

"Mineral sunscreens will only have one or two active ingredients, zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide," said Paras. "Mineral sunscreens exist for most of the major brands and can even be the same price."

There will be two sunscreen dispensers located at Gordon Bay Provincial Park this summer and three dispensers located in parks around Lake Cowichan in connection with the Save Your Skin Foundations pilot project. Last year local IDA Pharmacies separated their environmentally friendly sunscreens from other sunscreens with a sign, to make it easy for customers to see their options while Lakeview, Saywell, and Central Parks offered options through their on-site dispensers.

People can also be sun smart in other ways such as wearing ultraviolet protection factor clothing such as sun shirts and rash guards that are rated 50+ and will block 98 per cent of UV rays. Paras also recommends using shaded areas and accessories such as hats and sunglasses to help avoid direct sunlight between the hours of 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.

The Tube Shack has also got your back, and all your other parts that will be exposed to the sun. The Lake Cowichan business will be providing free, environmentally friendly sunscreen for their customers and have even created a 'Guide to Choosing a River-Safe Sunscreen' that can be found at

"Unfortunately we are the last line of defence when it comes to people entering the river with their chosen sunscreen and a lot have already made the choice by that stage," said Tube Shack owner Aaron Frisby. "The highest concentrations of oxybenzone were detected at beaches around the lake so I think the solution is to ban the sale of sunscreen that isn't non-nano mineral based in all stores in the Cowichan Valley, calling for all municipalities to bring in bylaws to enact this ban. Hopefully, businesses will start to restrict the sale of this harmful product, like Country Grocer in Lake Cowichan who don't carry anything but safe products."

For those looking to learn more, BCCF ARRC will have a booth set up at several events throughout the summer including the celebrating water festival called 'Weir all Connected' which will be hosted by the Cowichan Lake and River Stewardship Society at Saywell Park on July 20, and the Youbou Regatta which will be hosted at Arbutus Park on Aug. 10. 

They will also be visiting the Honeymoon Bay Market some Saturdays, and staff will be hitting beaches on weekends. People can take a survey to enter a prize draw, try some river safe sunscreen, chat and even grab a sticker for their water bottle.

About the Author: Chadd Cawson

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