Ah, summer. It’s that time of the year again for fun in the sun. When packing for your beach picnics, one of the most important items alongside the beer cooler is sunscreen. However, when you go to buy a sunscreen you are faced with the daunting prospect of choosing from hundreds of products lining your store’s shelves.
What makes your purchase even more complicated is that you have been told that not all sunscreens are created equal, false labeling is rampant and often misleading. So, what brands are safe for you and the kids and what should you know before making that very important purchase. (photo – Women’s Health)
Fortunately, there are a number of resources to help guide you in making a purchase that insures you do not sizzle or slime the ocean.
Before you Slather On Sunscreen Here are Some Options
Use shade, find it or make it with a beach umbrella and keep infants in the shade. Wear clothes whenever possible, especially hats. And don’t forget to wear sunglasses, this is a must to protect your eyes from what could become permanent damage. Consider rash guard shirts, they’re flexible, protect against sunburn and abrasions, light weight and quick drying. Choose your sun time wisely. Seeking shade for the midday hours of intense sun from 11:00 a.m. to 2 p.m. is a good thing for your skin that also helps cut down on the amount of sunscreen that will end up in the water. (photo – Kris Carr).
A Few Starter Sunscreen Tips
Avoid or at least take with a grain of beach sand, sunscreens that claim high SPF (Sun Protection Factor), “reef safe”, “all natural” or “biodegradable” as the FDA claims these claims can be“inherently misleading.”
Sunscreens can contain chemicals that impact your health. Since sunscreens are applied directly to the skin, this allows chemicals to be absorbed into the body especially if the chemical homosalate is used. There is limited data insuring the safety of sunscreen ingredients and some evidence that they may cause skin rashes or hormonal issues.
Avoid sunscreen sprays. Chemicals in these products can be inhaled and the spray is more likely to stick to the sand than to your skin but they may also have marine-life killing ingredients (see more below)..
Is Your Sunscreen Bad for the Planet?
This was the lead to a Vogue article that asked how the chemicals in sunscreens can damage coral reefs. In 2005, Craig Downs received a call from the US National Park Service asking his advice on what was killing the coral reefs around Trunk Bay in the U.S. Virgin Islands. Downs is a forensic ecotoxicologist and the perfect person to answer this question.
When he visited Trunk Bay, Downs was stumped until he talked to a local who described the sea after a day of 2,000-5,000 beachgoers, snorkelers and surfers. (photo – Cosmos Magazine)
“The surface of the water would look like an oil spill—it had an iridescent sheen.”
14,000 Tons of Sunscreen Slime Coral Reefs Annually
When you realize that approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen lotion finds its way onto coral reefs annually, you can begin to see the magnitude of the problem. After 12 years of research Downs pinpointed certain ingredients contained in sunscreens, (specifically oxybenzone, but also others – see below) that pose a serious threat to not only coral reefs but marine life worldwide. (photo- hellocharlie.com.au)
“We did studies under controlled conditions and we were horrified at what we found,” Downs said.
Oxybenzone can damage coral DNA resulting in reefs that look “healthy but are actually sterile and dead—so they cannot reproduce.” As a result of the research of Downs and others.
New Products Protect the Marine Environment
Companies have responded with eco-conscious products containing ingredients that are less harmful to the underwater environment. Autumn Blum, a chemist with Stream2Sea had an “aha” moment while diving in Palau several years ago.
“We were showering on deck, with fragrant suds running right overboard, putting leave-in conditioner in our hair, slathering on chemical-based sunscreens, then jumping back in the ocean to repeat the process.”
When Blum returned to the US she discovered that products that were marketed as “reef-safe” contained chemicals that she knew were not safe. The result of her research is now the Stream2Sea Sunscreen, a biodegradable product that has passed numerous independent clinical tests
Grist.org tested some of the most available lotions a few years ago, and with all the advancements in understanding what a reef-friendly sunscreen should have in it, the Grist List had to be winnowed down significantly. Here are some coral-hugging sunscreen alternatives:
How to Shop for Sunscreen
If you can’t find the products listed above in your local store, here are some pointers to reduce risking the reef
Shop for the Simplest Formulas
Even ‘natural’ or “organic” ingredients can harm the reef. Plant-based oils added to sunscreens, like eucalyptus and lavender, can be dangerous to invertebrates. Beeswax can contain industrial insecticides that, when emulsified in beauty products, can unleash these chemicals on your skin and in the water. A good rule of thumb: the simpler the formula, the better.
Buy Rub on — Not Spray on.
Opt for SPF lotions and creams instead of sprays, which are more likely to stick to the sand than your skin. When the tide comes in, this chemical-covered sand is then carried out into the ocean, which can lead to additional contamination. Also troubling: When it rains, this sunscreen residue can seep underneath the sand, where sea turtles often lay eggs.
Mineral based sunscreen with the ingredients zinc oxide and titanium dioxide.
Sunscreens made with zinc oxide and titanium dioxide are mineral-based, so rather than being absorbed like traditional sunscreen, the particles of these ingredients sit on top of the skin and block harmful UV rays. These ingredients are less harmful to corals and are not linked to coral bleaching. Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide aren’t entirely worry-free though. When those ingredients are uncoated and nano-size (less than 100 nanometers in diameter), they can be ingested by corals and cause oxidative stress in sunlight which blows up the cells so they die.
Look for ingredients that are “non-nano”. In order for mineral sunblocks to leave corals untouched, they must be “non-nano”, meaning the ingredient particles must be above 100 nanometers in size so that they cannot be ingested by corals. Clear Zinc oxide is becomes a nano product when mixed with salt water so avoid clear zinc.Your best bet is to go for coated, non-nano ingredients larger than 150 nanometers.
Looking deeper into a Sunscreen Label
Craig Downs works for Haerticus Environmental Labs, a non-profit foundation that is working to protect the ocean from toxic sunscreen and skincare products. Haereticus has developed a “Protect Land + Sea” Certification Seal that puts products through rigorous laboratory‐testing using analytical‐forensic techniques to verify that the product is free of the chemicals that are on the “HEL LIST.”
The HEL LIST is a list of chemicals that are known pollutants in many different environments (freshwater streams, river, beaches, and ocean systems) or wildlife (e.g., corals, fish, birds, marine mammals, sea turtles). All of them pose a threat to Ecosystem Health. Included on the HEL List are oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, all parabens, triclosane, Para-aminobenzoic acid (PABA), any form of microplastic sphere or bead and nano particles of zinc oxide and titanium oxide. Look for the absence of these chemicals on product labels to ensure you are buying a reef-friendly sunscreen.
Banning Sunscreens that Harm Coral Reefs
In July 2018, Hawaii signed legislation that bans sunscreens with oxybenzone and octinoxate. The bill is largely based on a study by Craig Downs which indicates the chemicals stunted the growth of coral and caused reproductive problems in fish.
According to Craig Downs’ 2016 study of the effects of sunscreen on reefs in the Virgin Islands and Hawaii, it only takes a tiny bit of oxybenzone to start damaging the DNA of coral and trigger harmful effects. As a 2018 briefing from the International Coral Reef Initiative explains,”[s]ome sunscreen chemicals, in certain situations, cause coral larvae to stop swimming, change shape, and ultimately die.”
Following Hawaii’s lead, Bonaire has voted unanimously in May 2018 to ban oxybenzone and octinoxate. Multiple parks in Mexico’s Riviera Maya and surrounding region — including Xel-Ha Park, Cozumel’s Marine Park, Chankanaab Beach Adventure Park and Xcaret Park — ban any sunscreen that is not “biodegradable. Approved sunscreens are all mineral-based.
Where to find out more about Reef-Friendly Sunscreen
About 70 per cent of over-the-counter sunscreens contain at least one of the two coral-harming chemicals, which filter out UV light and protect the skin from sunburns. Start looking for a better sunscreen: The ban goes into effect in 2021 but people are already choosing to stop using sunscreens with the damaging chemicals oxybenzone and octinoxate. And companies are already changing their formulas! Find out more at the Safe Sunscreen Council
A Comprehensive Safe Cosmetic Resource From Environmental Working Group
One of the best resources that everyone seems to tap into is the Environmental Working Group that publishes their comprehensive rating of sunscreens.
Or You Can Make your Own Sunscreen.