Article image

Trace amounts of sunscreen found at the North Pole

In a disturbing study, researchers have discovered traces of sunscreen agents in the snow at the North Pole, particularly in the glaciers of the Svalbard archipelago. This surprising find, primarily occurring during the long, sunless Arctic winters, reveals the far-reaching impact of human activities.

Research team and methodology

The team, comprising experts from Ca’ Foscari University of Venice, the Institute of Polar Sciences – National Research Council of Italy (CNR-ISP), and the University Center in Svalbard (UNIS), embarked on a mission to measure these concentrations and trace their origins.

The study was conducted between April and May 2021. Their research marks the first comprehensive survey of personal care product residue in the Arctic, offering valuable insights into their distribution across both space and time.

The researchers collected samples from five glaciers across the Brøggerhalvøya peninsula, strategically choosing sites near human settlements and more isolated areas. This approach enabled them to examine the presence and behavior of so-called emerging contaminants — still-in-use compounds now under scrutiny for potential environmental harm.

Finding sunscreen at the North Pole

The results were startling. The team detected various commonly used compounds, including fragrance materials and UV filters used in sunscreen, at the Earth’s extreme Arctic northern latitudes.

Marianna D’Amico, a PhD student in Polar Sciences at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice and the study’s lead author, emphasized the novelty of their findings.

“We identified contaminants such as Benzophenone-3, Octocrylene, Ethylhexyl Methoxycinnamate, and Ethylhexyl Salicylate in Arctic snow for the first time,” she noted.

Marco Vecchiato, a co-author and researcher in Analytical Chemistry at Ca’ Foscari, explained the significance of their discovery.

“Our findings demonstrate the role of long-range atmospheric transport in delivering these emerging contaminants to remote regions. Intriguingly, we observed the highest contaminant concentrations in winter deposits, when contaminated air masses from Eurasia can more readily reach the Arctic.”

Impact on the ecosystem

Vecchiato highlighted an intriguing aspect regarding UV filters, typically found in sunscreens. “The highest winter concentrations of these filters point to their origin in inhabited continental regions at lower latitudes. During the Arctic winter, when the sun never rises, sunscreen use in Svalbard is virtually non-existent.”

The study also revealed that the distribution of these contaminants varies with altitude. While most compounds were more concentrated at lower altitudes, Octocrylene and Benzophenone-3, both common in sunscreens, were more abundant at higher altitudes. This finding suggests their transport from lower latitudes via atmospheric circulation.

These discoveries carry significant implications for monitoring and protecting the Arctic ecosystem. Adverse effects of these contaminants, such as disruptions to the endocrine and hormonal systems of aquatic organisms, have already been observed. Some of these compounds are regulated in several Pacific islands and are under scrutiny by the European Union.

Keeping sunscreen out of the Arctic

Andrea Spolaor, a researcher at CNR-ISP, underscored the importance of understanding how these contaminants travel and settle in polar areas, especially given the rapidly changing climatic conditions in the Arctic, which are evolving four times faster than in the rest of the world.

“It will be crucial to understand how these contaminants are transported and deposited in polar areas, especially in relation to variations in local seasonal conditions,” concludes Spolaor. “Such conditions are rapidly changing in response to climate change, which occurs four times faster in the Arctic than in the rest of the world.”

In summary, this study not only shines a light on the unseen impact of everyday products like sunscreen but also calls for an urgent reassessment of their environmental footprint, particularly in vulnerable regions like the Arctic.

The full study was published in the journal Science of The Total Environment.


Like what you read? Subscribe to our newsletter for engaging articles, exclusive content, and the latest updates.

Check us out on EarthSnap, a free app brought to you by Eric Ralls and


News coming your way
The biggest news about our planet delivered to you each day