By Ana Toepel and Deborah Fleischer, Green Impact, July 2018 (originally run on UCSF’s Sustainability Website)

Summer might be over, but with the unseasonable warm fall we are having in California, it seems timely to highlight how to protect ourselves and the planet when it comes to sunscreen. According to research from the Environmental Working Group (EWG), many sunscreens on the market make misleading claims and contain ingredients that can harm us and the environment. Fortunately, there are options we can choose from to make a more sustainable sunscreen choice for ourselves and the planet.

Sunscreens May Be Unsafe for People and Coral Reefs

Each year EWG produces a sunscreen guide that includes research on issues related to sunscreen and product safety ratings to help people shop for sunscreen. Though sunscreens have become safer overall during the past decade, this year’s investigation of approximately 650 beach and sport sunscreens found serious issues with 2/3 of the products assessed.

How can sunscreens harm you?

  • Oxybenzone: Found in most mainstream brand sunscreens, this ingredient creates a chemical UV filter. It is absorbed into the body through the skin and has been shown to disrupt hormones and cause skin allergies in adults and children. The Environmental Working Group rates it as an 8 out of 10, or “High hazard.”
  • Vitamin A: Retinyl palmitate, a form of this vitamin, is an additive in many sunscreens that can cause damage to skin when it’s exposed to sun, even potentially producing cancerous tumors and lesions.
  • Anti-Cancer Claims: There is little evidence that sunscreen can prevent skin cancer, but many brands still make this claim. Like high SPF rating numbers that don’t necessarily provide more protection, this can give people a false sense of security and cause overexposure.

The ingredient oxybenzone is also harmful to marine life. An often-cited 2015 study from the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory found that oxybenzone, an endocrine disrupting chemical, bleaches coral, deforms its larvae, and damages its DNA, making it more vulnerable to coral reef destruction. Coral reefs are considered one of Earth’s biodiversity hotspots; when coral is damaged or killed, the many different organisms that depend on the coral reef for survival are impacted too.

Hawaii Votes for Safer Sunscreens

After vibrant coral reefs with an abundance of colorful tropical fish dramatically turned to dead, bleached white patches with just a few fish, Hawaiian politicians moved into action. This past May state legislators in Hawaii passed “The Sunscreen Pollution Ban,” banning over-the-counter sales of sunscreens containing oxybenzone. The ban will take effect in 2021 if signed into law by the governor. As reported in an article in Outside magazine, high levels of oxybenzone can induce toxicity in coral, algae, sea urchins, and algae eaters, and any coral conservation strategy must include reducing oxybenzone pollution from sunscreen.

Reef-Safe Options

Even here in the Bay Area, you might see sunscreens with a “reef-safe” label. “Reef-safe” sunscreens are mineral-based sunscreens, using mineral UV filters—typically zinc oxide and titanium dioxide—rather than chemical ones. These sunscreens do not contain oxybenzone. They can also be labeled as “non-nano,” which means the particles are under a hundred nanometers. However, according to EWG, this label is a tad misleading, because technically all zinc oxide and titanium dioxide used in sunscreens are nanoparticles.

Two Tips for Staying Green and Safe in the Sun

Tip #1: Protect Yourself from Overexposure Naturally: EWG suggests that wearing sunscreen isn’t the only way to protect yourself from the sun, and it can even be a last resort. Wearing clothing and sunglasses, sitting in the shade, and being outside when the sun is less intense are some other ways to avoid overexposure. For swimming in the ocean, you can cover up with a rash guard or swim shirt and use less sunscreen.

Tip #2: Shop for More Sustainable Sunscreens: When you need to use sunscreen for yourself or members of your family, there are safer options available. To compare different brands and make a more sustainable choice, get EWG’s Guide to Safer Sunscreens here. You can also look for sunscreen brands marked “reef-safe” or “coral-safe” at Amazon, Pharmaca, or other retailers.

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