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3 Million Tons of Cosmetics in the Ocean? The Mayan Riviera Hope Spot Dives into Action

By: Shilpi Chhotray, Mission Blue Communications Strategist What used to be small fishing villages and an undeveloped coastline, the Mayan Riviera boasts stunning beaches, a diverse portfolio of dive sites for scuba divers, and high-end luxury resorts. The Mayan Riviera is part of the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR), which contains the largest barrier reef in the...

By: Shilpi Chhotray, Mission Blue Communications Strategist

3679959466_a09d7ae0cb_bWhat used to be small fishing villages and an undeveloped coastline, the Mayan Riviera boasts stunning beaches, a diverse portfolio of dive sites for scuba divers, and high-end luxury resorts. The Mayan Riviera is part of the Mesoamerican Reef (MAR), which contains the largest barrier reef in the Western Hemisphere, stretching nearly 700 miles from the northern tip of the Yucatán Peninsula down through the Honduran Bay Islands. Located in the north of the MAR are the coasts of Quintana Roo, which includes popular island destinations like Cozumel and the Banco Chinchooro atoll. The Yucatán Peninsula alone draws in adventure goers from around the world for cave diving in the many cenotes or sinkholes that are unique to this part of the coast (6,000!).


There are 11 kinds of marine and coastal wetlands and 16 marine protected areas along the coast, providing homes to more than 3,000 species. This underwater oasis includes an impressive array of marine life including tropical fish, coral reefs, turtles, manta rays, whale sharks, and dolphins. The stretches of white powdery sand and clear turquoise waters of the Caribbean Sea bring in over 11 million tourists each year. Given the high demand for tourism, the natural ecosystem faces increased pressure from coastal development and pollution. In turn, the local community is working hard to develop creative solutions to protect it.

Tourism + Ocean Safe Cosmetics
For most ocean lovers, there is an obvious connection between the tourism industry and a need to safeguard marine habitat. What may not be entirely clear is the copious amount of pollution attributed to chemically-derived cosmetics like sunblock and soaps. Although we all use these products, few recognize their repercussions on the marine environment.
Pancho Mendiola is a local resident and avid scuba diver residing near Playa Del Carmen along the Yucatán Peninsula’s strip of Caribbean shoreline. In collaboration with his wife Iliana Loza, a chemical engineer, they’ve been researching the chemicals that go into making cosmetic products and its affects on humans and the ocean since 2010. Their findings include direct linkages between sunblock, shampoo and soap and the degradation of coral reefs in particular. Personal care products are responsible for 3 million tons of waste dumping into the ocean globally each year. And in Mexico, 6,000 tons of sunblock has been found on the beaches alone!


According to Pancho, there are 100,000 hotel rooms in the Mayan Riviera area – one can only image how many tons of chemicals are making their way into the ocean. As Pancho reports, the water treatment facilities are poor leaving behind a polluted the sea. Most of the owners of the hotel industry are multi-nationals from US and Europe and currently do not see the benefit of ocean safe options since naturally-derived products are typically 3 times the cost. The reality is, the MAR may be dead in less than 20 years without action from hotels and consumers alike. One hotel, Hotel Esencia has chosen to bring attention to this important issue by working with Pancho on using organic amenities and he hopes more will follow their lead.

Protecting Corals
Since many tourists are unaware of the harmful contaminates found in cosmetics, educating visitors and locals on every day products is essential now more than ever.

3179394563_d8bb16d65f_bWith the immediate link between coral degradation and cosmetics, Pancho created AHAL for Oceans in collaboration with local divers and activists. Their main objective is to spread awareness on the toxic ingredients found in cosmetic products and to take action by repairing depleted reefs. While 80% of the reefs are in good health, 27% are in fair condition and the rest are in poor shape. In partnership with several dive shops in the Mayan Riviera, Pancho is rebuilding a shallow reef destroyed from the infestation of chemicals.

There is an impetus on preventative action by consumers by purchasing organic and safe options before its too late. As Pancho describes, there are three categories of people; “those who litter and walk away, the ones who see litter and ignore it, and those who pick it up and tell people stop, they’re more active with the issues and that’s exactly where we want to get.”  His long term goal is the legal banning of sunscreen in the Mayan Riviera.

Pancho and the local community are doing an incredible job fostering dialogue and action on an important issue which is barely discussed. The Mayan Riviera Hope Spot is taking a global concern and activating their citizens to protect their marine environment. Reef safe sunblocks and other cosmetics are essential to protect marine life, as well as the user at hand.

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Meet the Author

Shilpi Chhotray
Shilpi is a Communications Strategist at Mission Blue. She curates outreach messaging related to Mission Blue causes and the ocean space in general. Shilpi comes with over nine years of experience in the ocean advocacy sector, particularly related to plastic pollution and marine protected areas. She's previously worked at the Environmental Defense Fund as a policy researcher, Ocean Gate as an educator, and Future 500 as a stakeholder engager. Shilpi is also the founder of Samudra Skin & Sea, an ocean-inspired skincare line featuring wild harvested, local seaweed. By blending personal wellness with ecological integrity, her goal is to bring key issues facing the oceans to every day consumers and encourage other companies to make our blue planet a CSR focus.