Hawaii is the first state in the U.S. to ban the sale of sunscreens containing chemicals that could harm coral reefs and other marine life. Scientists have found that these chemicals contribute to coral bleaching and DNA damage as well as other health problems in humans. Even if you don’t live in the Aloha state, it’s worth checking your sandy bottle of sunscreen to see if you can protect your skin with options that are better for the ocean and your own health.
Many sunscreens, including some of the most common brands like Coppertone, Banana Boat, and Neutrogena, contain the oxybenzone and octinoxate chemicals that Hawaii has banned. According to 2015 study published in the Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology study, it doesn’t take much oxybenzone to begin harming the fragile coral reefs. Just one drop in about six-and-a-half Olympic-sized swimming pools is enough to start doing damage. If it can do that to a body of water, just imagine what it’s doing to your body.
As for the ocean, when swimmers lather on these lotions tons of their toxic sunscreen washes off harming marine ecosystems. That’s not an exaggeration. The 2015 estimates up to 14,000 tons of sunscreen is deposited into the oceans each year.
It’s been proved that oxybenzone and octinoxate are also toxic to humans. The Environmental Working Group publishes a handy annual guide to sunscreens and it cites several studies that have found oxybenzone and octinoxate can disrupt hormones and cause skin allergies. These chemicals are absorbed into the skin and can be found in blood, breast milk, and urine samples.
The non-profit Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, which conducts studies on marine environments, has its own list of ingredients to watch out for in sunscreens. The list of no-no’s includes oxybenzone and octinoxate, along with parabens and nanoparticles. Consumers can look for products with the “Protect Land + Sea” certification to see which products meet the lab’s requirements.
Parabens are another example of a common ingredient in sunscreens that researchers have found can mess with marine life and your human hormones. Because parabens mimic estrogen, these chemicals have been linked to breast cancer and reproductive issues, among many other scary side effects. In fact, the European Union banned the use of parabens in cosmetics in 2014. Guess what, they are still allowed in US products. So much for our government having our backs! Thankfully, a few power players in D.C. are trying to do something about updating the legislation that governs what can legally be included in the ingredients in our body products, called the Personal Care Products Safety Act. It was introduced by Senator Dianne Feinstein in 2015 (https://www.congress.gov/bill/114th-congress/senate-bill/1014). Sadly no surprise, it’s still stuck on Congress.
The best healthy alternatives to your typical chemically concocted sunscreens are mineral sunblocks including “non-nano” zinc oxide and titanium dioxide. The “non-nano” ingredients are safer for the environment because they cannot be ingested by coral and better for your own health since those tiniest nasties can be more readily absorbed through your skin! Some brands that make this type of environmentally-friendly sunscreen include Raw Elements, ThinkSport, Badger, and All Good. Their reef-safe sunscreen products usually range from $10 – $30.
One of the healthiest sunscreen options for you and your family is reusable and already in your house—clothing. The amount of sun protection your clothing provides depends on factors such as the type of fabric and color. The American Cancer Society recommends clothing made out of tight-knit fabric, which keeps the harmful rays from penetrating your cover-up. Darker colors also absorb sunlight, instead of reflect it, meaning your black shirt will take most of the sun exposure, not your skin! You may just be a little extra schvitzy! There is also UV-proof clothing that can give you an extra layer of protection. The long-sleeve swim shirts with UV protection are great for kids because they can chase the waves or dive into the pool without the sun protection wearing off or seeping into the sea. Your sunscreen choice is just one of many that you can make on beach day to protect your skin, your health, and your oceans.