How Safe Is Environmentally Friendly Sunscreen?

When choosing a sunscreen, there are a variety of options to consider. Different brands, varying SPF levels, organic, non-organic, mineral-based – which option is the best?

In an effort to focus on environmental conservation, there has been much attention on the potential impact of sunscreen on our environment, particularly the ocean. There have also been many emerging studies that look at the potential impact of sunscreen on the body, as well. If you’re looking for a product that’s going to be good for both you and the environment, there’s a lot to consider.

Purpose of Sunscreen

The first thing that we often reference when selecting a sunscreen is the Sun Protection Factor (SPF). This measurement indicates the level of protection against UVB rays, which can cause sunburn and an array of skin cancers. For instance, SPF 15 sunscreens would offer low protection, whereas an SPF 30 or SPF 50 would offer much more.

Sunscreen can also help protect against UVA rays, which can prematurely age your skin and cause sun spots or wrinkles. Broad-spectrum sunscreens are designed to protect against UVA rays, but currently there is no specific measurement for UVA protection.

Ingredients within sunscreen lotions and sprays are designed to reflect the sun’s rays or to absorb them, thus preventing them from reaching the skin. Ingredients vary based on the type of sunscreen and method of application (e.g., spray or lotion), but all share the same purpose of offering skin protection.

Harmful Ingredients in Sunscreen

There are many different chemicals found in sunscreens, some of which are more harmful than others. Researchers have looked at the impact of active ingredients on both the human body and the environment through a variety of tests. Most studies have found that there are three particularly harmful ingredients that are extremely common in chemical sunscreens that we pull off of the shelf.

All three of these chemicals have drawn particular concern which we will explore further below.

Environmental Dangers of Sunscreen

Sunscreen is used to protect the body from the sun’s harmful rays. However, it doesn’t only come in contact with our skin. Surfers, divers, swimmers and beach-goers often lather up many layers of protective lotion to then spend time on the sand and get into the water. These behaviors can bring harmful chemicals into the beaches and oceans, impacting fish, reefs and other wildlife that are key components of our ecosystem. Oxybenzone in particular has shown alarming impacts.

Potential Damages of Sunscreen on the Environment

  • Damage to coral DNA
  • Damage to sea urchins, fish and mammals
  • Hinder the reproductivity of coral and other reef organisms, making them look healthy despite being dead and sterile
  • Coral bleaching: removal of life-sustaining algae that lives in the coral from pollution and stress
  • Harm to sea turtles and eggs (especially with spray sunscreens that leave product on the sand, where eggs are buried and hatch)

The Environmental Working Group (EWG) is an organization dedicated to protecting personal health, while simultaneously promoting a healthy living environment. They have paid special attention towards the effects of sunscreen and finding safe solutions that take both skin care and care for the marine ecosystem into account.

These consequences are extremely alarming. Since 1980, 90% of the Caribbean reefs have disappeared. There are a variety of other factors, such as alternative modes of pollution and climate change. However, studies have taken this into account and still recognize a strong correlation between the population entering the water and the increased destruction of coral reefs and other forms of marine life.

Are Plant-Based Sunscreens Reef-Safe?

Some environmentally concerned beach-goers feel that plant-based sunscreens are a viable solution, since they are made with natural products that should therefore be better for the environment. However, there are some oils and ingredients used in plant-based sunscreens that aren’t meant to be in the water. For example, eucalyptus and lavender can be extremely dangerous to invertebrates. Even if products are just being used for laying on the beach, they still go into the sand and are then brought out to sea with the tide or expose life on the beach.

Recently, cosmetic chemist Autumn Blum found that a plethora of sunscreens were labeled as “reef-safe,” though they contained all of the products that should not be in reef-safe sunscreens.

Health-Related Dangers of Sunscreen

Sunscreen is designed to help prevent hazards to your health from sun exposure. However, the products that you’re applying may be causing harm themselves. Depending on the type of sunscreen that you’re using, the lotion or spray can clog your pores and irritate your skin. This is of particular concern for individuals with sensitive skin or inflammatory skin conditions, such as psoriasis or eczema.

of the US population had oxybenzone in their bodies, according to a recent CDC study.

Oxybenzone, referenced as a danger to the environment, has also proven to cause hormonal imbalances, cell damage and allergies with humans. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recently looked into how many individuals were exposed to the chemical and found that a startling 97% of the population had oxybenzone in their bodies. Oxybenzone has been seen to lower testosterone levels in teenage boys, negatively impact the sperm count in men and has contributed to painful endometriosis in women.

Are Mineral Sunscreens Safe?

Many articles and companies claim that the solution to finding eco-friendly sunscreen is to switch to mineral-based sunscreens. However, even those products pose a risk with materials such as zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. These are known as nanoparticles (ultrafine particles), which can enter the bloodstream, potentially causing a series of allergic reactions. Similar concerns exist for certified organic and all natural sunscreen options.

These products aren’t banned and don’t usually contain warning labels, since manufacturers aren’t required to note the size of their nanoparticles. For more conclusive information about the potential effects of mineral sunscreens on health, more research and testing is needed.

What Are the Safest Sunscreens?

There is much research that still needs to be done to figure out what sunscreens are the best. Researchers and reef conservation activists urge consumers to avoid products with the three harmful chemicals mentioned above: octinoxate, octocrylene and oxybenzone in particular.

Oxybenzone has been banned in areas of Mexico after discovering its dangers, and Hawaii is currently looking at how to advertise the ingredient on warning labels. Look out for such labels, pay attention to sunscreen ingredients and be aware of the potential harms that it could cause. Many companies are coming out with new sunscreen products that offer quality SPF protection, but without the harmful, active ingredients.

Alternative Modes of Sun Protection

Sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect against the sun’s harmful UV rays, which is a primary concern for those looking to prevent skin cancer and other health conditions.

Other Ways to Protect Against the Sun

  • Wear sun-protective clothing
  • Take a break from the sun
  • Pay attention to times of the day when the sun is most harmful
  • Seek shade during long periods of time outside
  • Wear sunglasses
  • Pay attention to the UV Index

Keeping sun protection in mind, it’s important to pay attention to what you’re putting on your body and into the environment when looking out for your own safety and that of the world we live in.