You already have a lot to consider when buying a sunscreen: will it break me out… is it safe for my kids… SPF 30 or SPF 50? So while we do feel a little bad about giving you another thing to worry about, we can’t overlook the mounting evidence that chemicals found in many sunscreens are dangerous to marine life, especially coral reef ecosystems — and entering our bloodstreams. However, figuring out which sunscreens are gentler on the environment isn’t always crystal clear and requires some label-reading savvy.
Biodegradable reef-safe sunscreens that we love and highly recommend are:
- Tropic Great Barrier Sun Lotion – *Protect Land & Sea certified
- MyChelle Replenishing Solar Defense Body Lotion SPF 50 – *Leaping Bunny Certified + EWG Verified
- Biossance Squalane + Zinc Sheer Mineral Sunscreen – *Carbon Neutral Certified + EWG Verified
- Juice Beauty SPF 30 Sport Sunscreen – *Leaping Bunny Certified + EWG Verified
- Suntegrity Natural Mineral Sunscreen – *Leaping Bunny Certified + EWG Verified
- Badger Clear Zinc Mineral Sunscreen – *Protect Land & Sea certified
- Stream2Sea Mineral Sunscreen – *Protect Land & Sea certified
- All Good SPF 30 Sport Mineral Sunscreen Lotion – *Certified B Corporation + 1% FTP Partner
- Kokua Sun Care Hawaiian Natural Zinc Sunscreen
Chemicals To Avoid
Below is a list of the culprit chemical ingredients to avoid in sunscreen, body care and cosmetic products.
Also known as Benzophenone-3, this chemical absorbs and filters UV light and is a common ingredient in sunscreen, despite causing relatively high rates of skin allergies. It also penetrates the skin at very high rates and acts like estrogen once it enters your bloodstream, disrupting your endocrine system, reducing sperm production, and potentially causing endometriosis. According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), 97 percent of Americans have this chemical circulating in our bodies.
A very common ingredient in FDA approved chemical-based sunscreens. Avobenzone is often used in replace of Oxybenzone, but is still a benzophenone and holds with it similar risks associated with Oxybenzone. This ingredient works the same as oxybenzone in that it penetrates the skin and is also used to help other chemicals penetrate the skin. It also photodegrades with exposure to sunlight, increasing free radicals in the skin, increasing risks of types of skin cancer as well as photocontact allergies to sunscreens.
Octinoxate / Octyl methoxycinnamate
Octinoxate is absorbed through the skin and has been found in human urine, blood and breast milk, showing that it is systematically absorbed. It is an endocrine disruptor that can mimic hormones.
A synthetic UV absorber and SPF booster. It may cause allergic reactions in those with sensitive skin and has been shown to bio-accumulate in the body.
These are insoluble or biopersistant materials with a size of 1 to 100 nanometers, which can be up to 100,000 times smaller than a human hair! Nanomaterials can react in the body and environment differently from the same material that is non-nano. Although manufacturers have stated that nanoparticles are safe, there are still concerns among scientists. A recent study has shown that zinc oxide nanoparticles, even in extremely low concentrations, caused significant developmental disorders in sea life.
A very effective, broad antimicrobial ingredient preservative that is suspected to be a formaldehyde releaser. Used in low concentrations, it is still classified as a skin, eye, and respiratory irritant.
You won’t see formaldehyde listed on any of your personal care products, but many of the preservatives that have been used as paraben replacements release formaldehyde! Diazolidinyl urea, Quaternium-15, DMDM Hydantoin and Hydroxymethylglycinate are all formaldehyde releasers. The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified formaldehyde as a human carcinogen. It is also an ecotoxin.
Another very common sunscreen ingredient that, for health concerns, is limited to less than 10% in a formula by the FDA. Its used as a UV absorber that helps sunscreen ingredients penetrate your skin. It bio-accumulates in the body faster than it can be eliminated and is considered a hormone disruptor.
Often found in many cosmetics and skin care products, is composed of palmitic acid and retinol (Vitamin A). When exposed to UV light (or sunshine), retinol compounds break down and produce toxic free radicals that can damage the skin. The FDA has raised concern that extensive, daily skin application of vitamin A creams may build up a high enough level of Vitamin A that may be toxic to a developing fetus.
Including propylparaben, benzylparaben, methylparaben and butylparaben – parabens are a group of synthetic compounds commonly added to cosmetics and body products because they prevent the growth of fungus and bacteria. They are dangerous because, like so many ingredients in this list, they disrupt hormone functions, potentially leading to increased risk of breast cancer and reproductive toxicity. Five common types of parabens have been banned in the EU, and the FDA is under pressure to ban them in the U.S.
A widely used and very effective preservative. It is considered a sensitizer and irritant, is associated with allergic reactions, and lab studies are suggesting that it may be a neurotoxin. It is also considered an ecotoxin.
Sodium lauryl & laureth sulfate (SLS/SLES)
A surfactant, detergent and emulsifier that creates lots of lather in shampoos and body washes. Although SLS is ‘derived from coconuts,’ the resulting molecule is VERY different from any coconut we’ve ever seen. A quick look at the ingredient’s MSDS sheet shows lots of potential for concern. They have been mentioned in nearly 16,000 studies in the PubMed science library about the toxicity of this chemical.
Most commonly used in cleansers and exfoliants, but also found in other personal care products like toothpastes. Because they are so fine, most wastewater treatment plants cannot filter these and they end up in the environment. These have been found in fish and other aquatic species.
These chemicals, specifically oxybenzone, octinoxate and octocrylene, can damage coral DNA and cause coral bleaching. When coral bleaches, it is still alive, but it is under severe stress, which leaves it susceptible to disease and death. If coral reefs continue to die, due to their incredible importance as hotspots of marine biodiversity, the loss will extend far beyond the reach of the ecosystem itself. In addition, these same chemicals are also endocrine disruptors, that over time, can cause unknown health issues in people too, which is why it is important to choose a sunscreen that is as environmentally safe as possible, while also relying on umbrellas, hats and clothing to guard against sun damage.
The Better Choice
Mineral sunscreens (aka physical sunscreens), which typically feature zinc or titanium oxide as active ingredients, are much less damaging to marine life, but not all mineral formulas are made equal. The primary difference lies in whether the mineral particles are “non-nano,” meaning they are larger than 100 nanometers – (in most mineral sunscreens, mineral particles are nanotized, meaning they are less than 100 nanometers). The whole idea behind non-nano particles is that instead of dissolving in the ocean and threatening marine life, they sink and become apart of the ocean sediment. Also, non-nano sunscreens are healthier in the long run because the larger mineral molecules rest on the skin surface without seeping into your pores or follicle openings.
Now the truth of it is, removing sunscreens from our oceans won’t fix the problem; scientists also point to climate change, overfishing and pollution, however, the health of our oceans relies on action that needs to be taken by people, but most importantly, industries and governments. It is also worth pointing out that, much like terms including “natural” and “green,” there is no regulation of what is considered to be “reef-safe.” That said, even though in 2019 the United States Food and Drug Administration announced that it was moving to dramatically revamp regulations on safe-to-use sunscreen ingredients, we should note that the FDA still allows these chemicals for use in sunscreen, and dermatologists continue to recommend chemical sunscreens for their other benefits.
While there is still a lot of work to be done in order to save our fragile oceans, your individual choice to purchase a biodegradable reef-safe sunscreen can be of huge help!
Here is what we recommend when choose a sunscreen:
- Know your labels! – Avoid oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene & parabens.
- Organic does not always mean safe for the environment. Many (but not all) plant based/essential oils are toxic to aquatic life; neem, eucalyptus, lemon, peppermint, cinnamon, rosemary and lavender oils have increased relative toxicity to aquatic life.
- Non-organic beeswax can be contaminated with a variety of industrial fungicides and insecticides.
- Choose a non-nano, mineral-based formula.
- UVA vs. UVB – Make sure the label promises “broad-spectrum UVA/UVB protection.”
- Use a rub-on lotion – Use a lotion that you rub onto your skin rather than a spray that can easily land on the sand and wash into the ocean. When the tide comes in, chemical-covered sand is carried out into the sea, which leads to ocean contamination. When it rains, the sunscreen residue can seep underneath the sand, where sea turtles lay eggs.
- Look for good water resistance: A sunscreen that stays on longer when you’re in the water is less likely to wash off quickly. To maximize your sunscreen’s water resistance, always follow the application instructions pertaining to how long to wait before jumping in the water.
We have a deep appreciation for the protected areas of the Turks and Caicos Islands and respect their preservation. We leave no footprint of our own and make every effort to remove any that we come across on our journeys. We take pride in our environmentally friendly practices, so that the areas we explore can be enjoyed for generations to come.