Protecting your skin from the sun is a no-brainer when it comes to the outdoors. The easiest method, sunscreen, is a top health tip for any activity, but new research connecting coral reef deterioration and water pollution to elevated levels of chemicals commonly found in sunscreens is presenting a challenge for consumers. But what exactly makes a sunscreen environmentally friendly?
Proper sun protection may prevent dangerous sunburns and skin cancer like melanoma. While enjoying the outdoors, we apply generous amounts of sunscreen several times per day. Yet when we go for a swim or take a shower, the chemicals in our sunscreen enter our waterways. Emerging studies suggest municipal wastewater treatment systems may not effectively filter sunscreen from sewage. Furthermore, scientists believe long-term exposure to high concentrations of sunscreen ingredients in water and sediment harms marine plant and animal life, damaging their cells and tissue through oxidative stress and disrupting their endocrine and reproductive systems.
Extensive research suggests the active ingredients in most drugstore sunscreens—oxybenzone and octinoxate—are linked to coral reef bleaching, and recent legislation in Hawaii and Florida banned the sale of sunscreen containing these chemicals. In oceans, coral becomes stressed when exposed to high concentrations of these chemicals, causing algae that is critical to its survival to leave. Weakened, bleached coral doesn’t regenerate, eliminating shelter and food for entire wildlife ecosystems. This adds the challenge to find ways to still protect our skin without contributing to this damage.
Companies are emerging with products free from oxybenzone and octinoxate, often advertised as “reef-safe” to denote less environmental hazards. Reef-safe options typically use minerals—namely zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—to protect skin from the sun. While chemical sunscreens are designed to absorb ultraviolet (UVA) rays, mineral sunscreens are meant to reflect them. Historically mineral sunscreen was usually chalky or pasty and does not absorb easily into skin, especially on darker skin tones. To help with absorption, companies developed nanotized versions of zinc oxide and titanium dioxide with varied sizes to adjust how easily a lotion would absorb into the skin or rest on top of it.
Mineral sunscreens with nanotized particles raise their own set of environmental concerns, with a handful of studies suggesting they may be fatal to water fleas and weaken immune defenses for mussels. Inhaling nanotized particles has been linked to lung cancer, so using spray or aerosol mineral sunscreen is not advised.
Consumer Reports rates both chemical and mineral sunscreens for sun protection factor (SPF), UVA protection, and scent and feel. The Environmental Working Group offers handy ingredient breakdowns for more than 2,000 skincare and cosmetics brands, with an eye toward human health effects. New Hampshire brand All Terrain has previously received favorable marks from both evaluations, and Long Island, N.Y.-based Alba Botanica ranks well for certain versions of its sunscreen (Alba Botanica Sport Mineral Sunscreen Lotion, Fragrance Free, SPF 45), but that stamp of approval isn’t universal; some of its products contain avobenzone, a chemical that is more harmful to human health versus environmental, a reminder to read labels thoroughly.
Consider how to minimize your sun exposure by using clothing as a first defense. Broad-brim hats, sunglasses, and full-coverage swimsuits or rash guards can minimize the amount of sunscreen you need, and many outdoor companies now make breathable shirts and pants to keep you cool and protected from the sun.
“The Awful Eight”: The group of chemical ingredients most often cited as potentially harmful to environmental and human health: oxybenzone and octinoxate, avobenzone, enzacamene, homosalate, octisalate, octocrylene, and p-Aminobenzoic acid.
Mineral sunscreen: Sunscreen that typically contains titanium dioxide or zinc oxide.
“Reef-safe”: A term that ostensibly suggests a product is environmentally friendly and is free from oxybenzone and octinoxate.
Nanoparticle: The size of particles designed to increase a lotion’s ability to rub into skin.
UVA and UVB rays: Short for ultraviolet rays that reach the earth from the sun. UVB rays cause sunburn, and UVA rays penetrate deeper into skin layers, potentially leading to the development of skin cancers.
SPF: FDA abbreviation for sun protection factor, used to measure protection against harmful sun rays.
Water-resistant vs. waterproof: Water-resistant is a federally regulated measure for how long a sunscreen maintains its SPF against sweat or swimming. The FDA no longer permits companies to advertise sunscreens as “waterproof” or “sweat-proof”.