Jaclyn Caruso, Salem State University
The problem: Have you brushed your teeth today? Washed your hair? Put on deodorant, perfume, makeup, or lotion? If you (hopefully) have, you’ve used a cosmetic. According to the FDA, anything that is applied to your body with the intention of cleansing or beautifying it is a cosmetic (FDA, 2018). Because this category covers such a wide variety of products, it’s easy to imagine just how many are used worldwide on a daily basis.
Like anything people use, cosmetics are eventually washed off, and often end up in the ocean from sewage drains and wastewater treatment plants. The problem with this pollution is that cosmetics contain preservatives. Although these components prevent the growth of bacteria and mold, their actions when introduced to natural systems are not tested at great lengths when considering their frequent use. Until a few years ago, the most common preservatives were a group of chemicals called parabens.
But, you’ve probably heard of at least one product that claims to be “paraben-free.” This aversion to parabens followed a landmark study in 2004 which showed that parabens have the potential to accumulate in human breast tumors (Darbre et al., 2004). The authors explicitly stated that the source of the parabens (methylparaben, mainly) was unknown, but many people were shaken by the findings. Cosmetics manufacturers began changing their formulations by using newer, “safer” preservatives like 2-phenoxyethanol and chlorphenesin (Bressy et al., 2016). However, these alternative preservatives have not been extensively tested for their effects on marine animals, which may be at risk when these chemicals enter the ocean.
My research this summer aims to explore the effects that these alternative preservatives have on marine animal development. We will use the local sea urchin Arbacia punctulata as a model, because it is easily collected in the wild and reared in the lab. Like many marine animals, A. punctulata is a broadcast spawner—males and females release their sperm and eggs into the water column. After fertilization, the embryos develop into free-floating larvae, which are highly sensitive to pollutants.
We will expose the sea urchin larvae to various concentrations of each chemical to test whether larval development is affected negatively by the chemicals. Such negative effects could inhibit the ability of sea urchins to develop properly, leading to death or inability to mature to adulthood. If we see effects in sea urchins, there is a possibility of similar effects in other species that may be more directly important to humans, like fish and crustaceans.
Our ultimate goal is to explore whether products that are safer for people are safer for the marine environment. If they are—great! If not, we need to think critically about the products we use that end up in the ocean, because human and ocean health are inextricably linked. Healthy oceans, for example, provide us with food, medications, recreation, and more (NOAA, 2018).
Thank you to Dr. Bob Podolsky (CofC) for his mentorship and endless patience, Dr. Cheryl Woodley (NOAA) for graciously offering her procedures and resources, and Pete Meier (CofC) for teaching me the ropes of setting up aquaria. This project is supported by the Fort Johnson REU Program, NSF DBI-1757899.
Bressy, A. et al. (2016) ‘Cosmet’eau—Changes in the personal care product consumptionpractices: from whistle-blowers to impacts on aquatic environments’, Environmental Science and Pollution Research. Environmental Science and Pollution Research, 23(13), pp. 13581–13584. doi: 10.1007/s11356-016-6794-y.
Darbre, P. D. et al. (2004) ‘Concentrations of Parabens in human breast tumours’, Journal of Applied Toxicology, 24(1), pp. 5–13. doi: 10.1002/jat.958.
FDA (U.S. Food & Drug Administration) (2018) ‘Is It a Cosmetic, a Drug, or Both? (Or Is It Soap?)’ https://www.fda.gov/Cosmetics/GuidanceRegulation/LawsRegulations/ucm074201.htm (accessed Jul. 2, 2018).
NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) (2018) ‘What does the ocean have to do with human health?’ https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/ocean-human-health.html (accessed Jul. 2, 2018).