Sunscreen is associated with all things healthy. It keeps your skin safe from damaging UV rays, preventing skin cancer and wrinkles alike.
But as it turns out, some of the most common ingredients in sunscreen are harming the environment, and possibly humans, too.
There are two types of active ingredients in sunscreen: those that block UV rays with a physical barrier and those that instead use chemicals to absorb UV rays. These chemical sunscreens often include the harmful ingredients oxybenzone and octinoxate. While they effectively protect your skin from UV rays, research shows they are toxic to coral species, even in tiny concentrations.
Specifically, a 2015 study based in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands demonstrated how oxybenzone is an endocrine and DNA disruptor for both adult and juvenile species of coral. It causes adult coral to stop reproducing and juvenile coral to “encase itself in its own skeleton and die,” among other deformities. (Dramatic, right?)
Also, oxybenzone contributes to coral bleaching by causing coral to absorb more heat. Rising temperatures cause the algae zooxanthellae, which lives together with the coral in a symbiotic relationship, to be expelled, leaving the coral bleached white and vulnerable to death.
These negative effects can occur even if the sunscreen chemicals are present in trace amounts. The study showed negative effects of oxybenzone at 62 parts per trillion, the equivalent of a drop of water in six and a half Olympic-sized swimming pools! When researchers tested sea water samples in Hawaii and the Caribbean, the levels were 12 times that.
What’s more, there’s speculation that these chemicals might affect the human endocrine system as well. The CDC found that a shocking 97% of Americans had oxybenzone in their urine. Evidence is inconclusive as to whether it’s harming human health, but it can’t hurt to avoid putting it on your skin.
Islands Are Leading the Way in the Sunscreen Revolution
Island communities have been at the forefront of the sunscreen revolution, and understandably so. Hawaii passed a bill that prohibits the sale and distribution of sunscreen with oxybenzone or octinoxate, effective in January 2021. Hawaii Airlines offered passengers free samples of reef-safe sunscreen. The company also showed a documentary on reef health to educate tourists. Similarly, the Pacific island of Palau banned sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate just this past year.
How to Choose Reef-Safe Sunscreen
Even if you don’t live near the ocean or don’t swim in it, the chemicals in your sunscreen still end up there through wastewater runoff. All paths lead to the sea, as they say.
Nonetheless, you can still protect your skin while reducing your impact on the oceans. There are reef-safe sunscreen options.
Sunscreens with active ingredients — such as titanium oxide and zinc oxide — that physically block UV rays are much better for the oceans. While these types of sunscreens are also known for leaving an unsightly white cast on the skin, sunscreen brands have come a long way in making them more acceptable to us tan-conscious consumers.
When you search for reef-safe sunscreen, check the ingredients list instead of trusting labels, as there is no regulation on the label “reef-safe.” Look for sunscreen without the ingredients oxybenzone, octinoxate, homosalate, octocrylene and avobenzone.
While you’re going down this path, you may also want to consider the packaging of the sunscreen you buy. Is it recyclable?
Alternatively, you could always cover up with clothes and a hat while exposed to the sun. (If you’re worried about the cool factor, just remember sun hats rack up a ton of Instagram likes these days;)
Our ocean ecosystems are under immense strain already from global warming, acidification, plastic pollution and overfishing. Ditching sunscreens with harmful chemicals is one small thing we can all do to nudge the needle in the right direction.
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