We all know SPF is essential for protecting our skin. But could your sunscreen be damaging the planet? That’s the fear of some marine biologists, who have found certain chemicals present in sun lotions could lead to the bleaching of coral reefs in our oceans—severely impacting entire ecosystems and putting the reefs at risk of dying off.
In fact, research suggests an astonishing 14,000 tonnes of sunscreen ends up in our seas annually. The findings have led to popular tourist destinations such as Hawaii, Palau and the US Virgin Islands to announce bans on certain sunscreens in an attempt to protect their coral reefs. Luckily for us, an increasing number of brands are creating ocean-safe and reef-safe sunscreens, ensuring we can still protect our skin while also looking after the environment.
The science behind all of this, though, is complex—and some experts have emphasised that existing research, which shows certain sunscreens harm the environment, is not conclusive. So, what ingredients should we be looking out for? We speak to marine biologist Professor Cinzia Corinaldesi from the Università Politecnica delle Marche and Dr Anjali Mahto, consultant dermatologist at Skin55, to find out.
Avoid oxybenzone and octinoxate
The main chemicals to watch out for are oxybenzone and octinoxate, which are commonly used in sunscreen to absorb UV light. “We [have] demonstrated that oxybenzone, octinoxate and enzacamene caused complete coral bleaching even at very low concentrations,” says Professor Corinaldesi. Octocrylene is another chemical that’s potentially harmful to marine life, with the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory compiling a handy list of the ingredients we should try to avoid.
“Certain organic filters have been identified in water sources worldwide and there seems to be a suggestion that they are not easily removed by common wastewater techniques,” adds Dr Mahto. “Many of the filters have also been found in various species of fish worldwide—the impact of this is uncertain on the food chain.”
Opt for a mineral sunscreen instead
Mineral sunscreens, which typically contain zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, are thought to be less harmful to coral reefs in comparison to their chemical counterparts. “Mineral sunscreens rely on inorganic filters, which form a physical barrier on the skin surface,” explains Dr Mahto.
It’s worth remembering, though, that some research suggests zinc oxide can also pose a danger to marine life. “Our studies indicate that zinc oxide nanoparticles are very harmful to marine organisms,” says Professor Corinaldesi, but adds that titanium dioxide with surface coatings—as found in Green People’s scent-free SPF 30—“has a much lower impact on coral reefs”.
Look for non-nanoparticles
Particle size matters, too. While nanoparticles can be absorbed by coral reefs, research suggests that larger non-nanoparticles (a label you’ll see on lotions) are better for the environment. Ren’s Clean Screen Mineral SPF 30 uses non-nano zinc oxide, while Stream2Sea’s sunscreens contain non-nano titanium oxide. “Consumers should look out for sunscreens that use non-nanoparticles because nanoparticles of titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are expected to be more harmful to marine organisms than non-nanoparticles,” explains Professor Corinaldesi.
Choose a lotion over a mist
Mists or sprays may be more convenient than a sun cream, but they could be more damaging to our oceans. That’s because sunscreen mist ends up on the sand, as well as your body, while at the beach, which is then washed into the sea. Choosing a lotion or a roll-on you rub onto your skin is a simple switch you can make to help the planet.
Read beyond the ‘reef-safe’ or ‘ocean-safe’ labels
The increase in demand for eco-friendly sunscreens means that a lot of brands are now marketing their products as ‘reef-safe’ or ‘ocean-safe’. This usually means they don’t contain oxybenzone and octinoxate—the two chemicals banned in sunscreen by countries such as Hawaii—but they could still contain other chemicals on the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory list that are potentially harmful to the environment. “Consumers should check the ingredients on the label of the products,” Professor Corinaldesi comments.
Don’t forget the packaging
Beyond the ingredients in sunscreen, it’s important to consider the packaging as well, with discarded sunscreen bottles contributing, in part, to the 8m tonnes of plastic that end up in our oceans every year. Brands such as Green People are using recyclable plant-based packaging made from sugar cane; a much more eco-friendly option compared to traditional plastic containers.