An Environmentalist's Guide to Sunscreens

Updated: Oct 16, 2019

Sunscreen was made to protect us from the sun's harmful radiation, minimize the possibility of skin cancer, and prevent long-term skin damage. However, the harsh chemicals within sunscreen may be doing more harm than good, both to us and the ocean. This might not seem like a pressing issue, but with 4,000 - 6,000 pounds of sunscreen entering our oceans each year, it has added up dramatically.

There are two types of sunscreens: chemical and mineral. Chemical sunscreens absorb UV rays and convert them to heat, whereas mineral sunscreens reflect them. Mineral sunscreens consist of either titanium dioxide or zinc oxide, and have been confidently declared as safe by the Food and Drug Administration under rigorous testing. Chemical sunscreens haven't exactly stood up to the test in the same way.

How sunscreen harms us

A study published earlier this year found that sunscreen enters our body immediately and stays for at least 24 hours, and in concentrations large enough to warrant an investigation into the health effects of these chemicals. A separate study reported oxybenzone as a possible endocrine disruptor that also produces allergic reactions AND has been linked to Hirschsprung's disease. While these are just two publications among many others, it's a common trend that the chemicals in cosmetics are usually linked to poor health effects.

While some may argue this toxic exposure to humans doesn't add up to anything concrete, there is absolutely no debate that chemical sunscreens impact the health of coral reefs.

How chemical sunscreen harms coral reefs

Oxybenzone is the chemical that has received the most attention as negatively impacting coral reefs (and fish, too). But there are multiple chemicals that cause the same effects. The main 7 are:

  • Oxybenzone

  • Octinoxate

  • Octisalate

  • Octocrylene

  • Homosalate

  • Avobenzone.

So how exactly to these harsh chemicals hurt corals?

Well, corals must grow their exoskeleton to create a reef that supports biodiversity, fish nurseries, and protective structures for marine life to thrive. These rainforests of the ocean are essential to the foundation of a healthy sea and healthy humans. Corals account for supporting 1 million species in the ocean, including the fish we choose to eat.

Oxybenzone has been determined to cause deformities in the coral, prevent reproduction through DNA damage, and cause coral bleaching and mortality. In times of stress, corals expel their algal symbionts and turn white. The primary cause of coral bleaching is rising temperatures that cause stress. However, chemical exposure from sunscreens also causes stress in corals and subsequent bleaching behaviors.

Coral bleaching (n): a phenomenon where corals bleach their symbiotic algae that lives in their skin and provides nutrients, resulting in a loss of coral color, inhibited growth, and increase vulnerability to mortality.

There is an ongoing problem of greenwashing in the sunscreen market, where sunscreen that does not contain oxybenzone, but contains the other chemicals, is being advertised as "reef safe." We know that the other 6 chemicals cause similar effects on coral reefs. That is why it is up to YOU as the consumer to find the truly reef safe sunscreen before its too late.

It is estimated that 90% of coral reefs worldwide will be bleached by 2050.

I'm not advocating abstinence from sunscreen. Protecting your skin is essential, especially if you spend most of your time outdoors. But using chemical sunscreen, considering all of its physical and environmental consequences, isn't the best option when there is the option to purchase mineral.

Mineral sunscreens

Mineral sunscreens are the only sunscreens that have be proven to be safe and healthy for us and coral reefs. These are the sunscreens that are thick, and they use a mechanism of reflection to protect us. Zinc and titanium oxide sunscreens are the two main forms of mineral sunscreens. You can tell they are mineral by the residue they leave behind!

To best save coral reefs, I use sunscreen that is not only mineral, but plastic free, zero waste, and locally made in Hawai'i. Puko'a Organics is a small business based on Oahu and run by two conservationists that wanted to make a difference. I love that they use biodegradable packaging, are transparent about their ingredients, and seek to educate about the hazards of traditional sunscreen usage. If you want to learn more about this incredible brand, explore their website.

It can always be a little overwhelming when you educate yourself on a new conservation issue. But by learning the background of each threat to our planet, you can find the best solutions. It wouldn't make sense for me to get mineral sunscreen in a plastic container, although I have in the past. No one is perfect, and finding local brands that understand the big picture behind sustainability is key. Supporting these small businesses ends up making a huge difference - for them and the ocean.

Join the #reefsafe revolution by swearing off chemical sunscreens for good. It better for you, the planet, your children, and all the creatures of the sea.

Let me know your thoughts on this post, if you're willing to make the #reefsafe switch, and your sustainability journey!

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