Transexualizing Fish with Sunscreen (or) How About Some Soybeans With That Tan?

OK...we concede that's a tweaky headline. So far all we really have is an uncorroborated speculation that oxybenzone, an ultraviolet light (UV-A) absorbing ingredient of suntan lotions could by itself, or in concert with other synthetic compounds, disrupt endocrine systems of bottom feeding oceanic fish. Specifically, scientists at the University of California, Riverside, have reported that two-thirds of the male turbot and sole collected near a sewage discharge point, three miles off Huntington Beach, California, were growing ovary tissue in their testes. A similar study by the Southern California Coastal Water Research Project was reported to have found fish affected all along the coast. But the University of California scientists found that the only pollutant they could "exclusively identify" as present in association with the transexualized fish testes is oxybenzone.Let's for the sake of discussion assume that this hypothesis turns out to be correct. Male surfers will have to wear dry suits. Just kidding.

Obviously, there is a risk management tradeoff between protecting aquatic organisms (involuntary exposure) and reducing the odds of getting skin lesions from the sun (voluntary exposure). However, it's not true that, without access to oxybenzone in sunscreen, more people will get necessarily skin cancer-- though this will likely be the spin put on it by some Think Tanks -- because there are several ingredient choices for sunscreen formulators. For a full listing of ingredient mixes, by brand, you can check here.

We see this story as a metaphor for several higher-level issues. These revolve around regulatory agencies treating as tangential things that really need to be viewed as central to public health. One such issue is that food and personal care product ingredient regulators assess solely on the basis of direct human impacts, ignoring bioaccumulation and biomagnification as sources of secondary human exposure. They also ignore new evidence of impacts on other species until some other agency makes an issue of it. A third concern is that our understanding of endocrine disruption potential is so new that regulations in developed nations largely do not reflect it. The one exception to this is the historic banning of DDT, which was accomplished (fortunately for the Bald Eagle) before scientists actually understood the causation mechanisms fully.

This takes us to "what other uses are there for oxybenzone besides as a sunscreen lotion ingredient"? Look here for some answers. Our favorites: a car wash "gel" soap and an insect repellant. The hair sprays and shower gels are also pretty interesting. Obviously uses transcend the beach and poolside.

Are there any adverse impacts stemming from direct human exposure to oxybenzone? According to this bibliography, "human intolerance of sunscreen agents has often been reported in the literature. This mainly comprises photosensitization to sunscreens such as oxybenzone".

What about those soybeans we mentioned in the headline? Well, we decided to save the best stuff for last. A soy oil-based active ingredient named "Soyscreen", still in pre-commercial development, has been shown to have UV-A interrupt properties superior to oxybenzone. For a full scientific background report on Soyscreen click here. Nice coverage for a general audience also is found here in the Soy Daily. Don't we love that title!.

How close are commercial sales of SoyScreen? According to this December 2005 economic development report from Peoria IL, "iSoyTechnologies has now entered into an initial agreement with the leading U.S. cosmetics additives company, International Specialties Products (ISP), which is anticipated to lead to a permanent agreement for international sales and distribution in the next 30 days...In addition, a well regarded market innovator in the cosmetics industry is successfully integrating one of the versions of SoyScreentm into a new line of products that will be sold early next year at up-scale stores across the U.S".

Perhaps because the ingredient is an extract from a common foodstuff, gaining FDA approval will be a piece of cake. Assuming the distribution agreement proceeds as the Peoria report suggested it may, we offer our advance congrads to not only the inventors and license holder, but also to ISP, which appears also to have been, or still is, a supplier of oxybenzone.

As for Peoria, we expected your Chamber of Commerce to do it's part to curb transexual piscatorial escapades on the left coast; and they came through. Go Midwestern TreeHuggers!