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Sustainability Tip: Choose your sunscreen wisely to prevent chemicals from washing into our waters

By William Schmick
Special to the Daily
Coral reefs protect land from erosion, provide oxygen for the planet and serve as richly biodiverse ecosystems.
Special to the Daily

Over-exposure to the sun is one of the leading causes of skin cancer, and the CDC recommends using a sunscreen of at least SPF 15. However, many well-intending consumers are often unaware that their sunscreen can have harmful effects on the environment, notably coral reef bleaching, the process by which coral reefs gradually die from environmental turbulence. This detrimental effect has been linked to chemicals commonly found in sunscreens, like the UV filter oxybenzone, resulting in several bans in Hawaii, Key West, and even REI stores, according to NPR.

National Geographic reports that 14,000 tons of sunscreen could be washing into oceans each year: “Even if you don’t swim after applying sunscreen, it can go down drains when you shower. Aerosol versions can spray large amounts of the product onto the sand, where it gets washed into the oceans.”

The chemicals from sunscreen have been found in water sources around the world and are often missed by common wastewater treatment techniques. That means these chemicals persist in the environment, trapped in plant and animal matter like coral reefs. And although we may feel far from any coral reef here in our landlocked state, all our waters are ultimately connected.

Additionally, according to a study published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, UV filters like oxybenzone can cause hormone disrupters and reproductive toxicity in fish, and there may be similar disruptions in humans, regardless of proximity to the ocean.

Coral reefs survive by using sunlight to perform photosynthesis and subsequently provide oxygen for the planet. The Great Barrier Reef gets its name because it provides a barrier for the land — protection from storms and erosion. A plethora of food sources and pharmaceutical ingredients are found exclusively in reefs, and reefs provide shelter and habitat for yet another plethora of biodiversity. In short, coral reefs are an integral part of our ecosystem and global economy, and the materials and chemicals going into our oceans are threatening their existence.

Here are four tips for finding a sunscreen that will do less harm to the environment.

  1. Sun protection is still very important. Although there are significant environmental and health concerns with many mainstream and traditional sunscreens, it is still crucial to protect yourself against the sun, whether through less harmful products, avoiding direct sunlight, or limiting the amount of exposed skin.
  2. Pay attention to the ingredient list. There are oxybenzone-free sunscreens that do prevent against some of the most damaging effects to the environment. But while oxybenzone is of concern for ocean habitats, there are other chemicals to avoid as well, according to Consumer Reports.
  3. Therefore, look for the alternatives. True “reef-safe” sunscreen will be mineral-based and will most likely have a heavy content of zinc. They will also likely be “non-nano,” meaning the ingredients are 100 nanometers in diameter or more and therefore can’t be ingested by corals. There are many different brands and price points available, and a quick Google search will provide lots of options.
  4. Be smart about labels. “Reef safe” is not a real certification. Anyone can claim it and it doesn’t necessarily mean that it is good for reefs. Reef safe might be friendlier to reefs, but that might be relative. That means it is that much more important to pay attention to the ingredients, and to be aware of what you are putting on your body and into the environment.

William Schmick is a Sustainability Intern with Walking Mountains Science Center. Contact him at williams@walkingmountains.org.


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