Green Tip: Choosing Eco-Friendly Sunscreen

Green Tips | June 9, 2017

Sunscreen and summer go together hand in hand. Sunscreen is essential for protecting our skin from the sun’s harmful, cancer causing UV rays. But did you know that some of the sunscreens you use to protect your skin may actually be doing damage to your body? As if that’s not bad enough, many popular sunscreens on the market have been found to contain chemicals that are harmful to aquatic ecosystems such as coral reefs when they inevitably end up in our waterways.

Public Health Hazards:

Sunscreens rely on chemicals or minerals to filter out UV rays. Chemical sunscreens contain potentially dangerous compounds that may enter the body by permeating the skin or being inhaled.

Certain FDA-approved chemicals have been associated with hormone disruption and allergic reactions. To learn more about the toxic ingredients found in common sunscreens and the risks associated with each visit this page. Additionally, The Environmental Working Group reports some sunscreen ingredients that are dangerous for humans. A form of vitamin A called retinyl palmitate can harm skin while another chemical called Oxybenzone disrupts hormones and can be an allergen.

Mineral sunscreens are biodegradable and rely on nanoparticle technology to protect against the sun’s rays. These nanoparticles are usually made up of titanium dioxide or zinc oxide and have been deemed less hazardous because they do not pose the same threats from skin permeation. These mineral sunscreens still pose risks if ingested, however, so keep these away from your mouth!

Environmental Impacts:

If you swim in the ocean, much of the sunscreen you apply ends up in the water. When you wash off your sunscreen, the ingredients enter our wastewater and sewage systems. Many of the chemicals are not filtered out by sewage treatment centers and eventually end up in our waterways and oceans. While research is just starting to reveal the full effects of these compounds, recent findings suggest that they have the potential to harm wildlife and wreak havoc on aquatic ecosystems.

Many mineral sunscreens contain nanoparticles of titanium dioxide (TiO2) as an active ingredient. To avoid unwanted skin reactions, TiO2 is usually coated with silica or alumina for sunscreen use; however, the coating dissolves in water, and TiO2 reacts with sunlight and oxygen to form compounds including that of hydrogen peroxide (H2O2). According to an article published by Scientific American, increased concentrations of H2O2 can inhibit phytoplankton growth. Phytoplankton are the base of ocean food chains, and they are essential to the health of an aquatic ecosystem.

The Coral Dilemma: Research by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has found that Benzophenone, or BP-2, a common chemical found in many sunscreens and other skincare and beauty products, can be damaging to corals even in small concentrations. The chemical has been found to kill juvenile corals and bleach colorful corals by causing DNA damage, which usually results in death. This is bad news for such a fragile ecosystem.

The Quick Numbers:

  • 2%of the ocean floor is covered by coral reefs
  • 1 million plants and animals are estimated to call coral reefs home with many species still to be discovered
  • 75%of coral reefs are endangered by a host of different pollutants and human activities
  • 10%of the world’s coral reefs have been wiped out already
  • 4,000to 6,000 tons of sunscreen is estimated to enter reefs each year

What you can do:

  • Read the labels! Wear sunscreens that have zinc oxide as the active ingredient. They are just as effective as common chemical sunscreens when used correctly and these biodegradable mineral sunscreens are free of BP-2 and other chemicals that are known to be harmful to aquatic ecosystems. To take a look at some great biodegradable sunscreen options click here.
  • Avoid Spray Sunscreen! These forms of sun protection pose inhalation risks. With spray, it’s also easy to miss a spot and apply too little for adequate protection.
  • Better yet, cover up whenever possible! Even sunscreens that are biodegradable often rely on nanoparticle technology and is not 100% environmentally friendly, having been found to pose potential health threats to fish and amphibians when ingested in high enough concentrations.

The Takeaway: The less sunscreen you put on, the better—but when you have to wear it, protect yourself and the environment and wear biodegradable mineral sunscreens!

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