Most people know that sunscreen is essential for your skin. Your mother has said it, your doctor has advised you, and even we at Men’s Healthcare have been told many times. According to the American Academy of Dermatology, sunscreen provides the best protection against skin cancer-causing sunburns. You apply sunscreen every two hours and then reapply as directed. You may not realize that the protection you give your skin from the sun can also play a part in the degradation of the environment around it.
A group of scientists, including Dr. Craig Downs (Executive Director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory), was tasked by the Federal Government in 2015 to discover why coral reefs were disappearing in the U.S. Virgin Islands. They found that sunscreens were high in chemicals in the waters of popular tourist beaches. [utm_campaign
In 2018, Hawaii was the first state to ban sunscreens containing oxybenzone or octinoxate. These two chemicals have been proven to affect ocean life and disrupt the hormones profoundly. Key West followed suit in 2019, and the Food and Drug Administration proposed new regulations to regulate sunscreens that contain common chemicals, such as oxybenzone and Octinoxate. However, this was subject to updated testing. The FDA is more concerned about the effects of these chemicals on people than the environment.
You’ve likely noticed more sunscreens that claim to be “reef-safe”. What does this mean? And should you switch? It isn’t very easy.
How Can Sunscreen Harm the Environment?
It all comes down to the type of sunscreen you use. Ron Robinson, the cosmetic chemist, says that chemical sunscreens are more problematic because they have been shown to accumulate in the water. On the other hand, mineral-based sunscreens such as zinc oxide or titanium dioxide don’t accumulate in the water. “Chemicals can be absorbed by marine life, causing damage and even death.” Minerals sink to bottom” Downs says coral bleaching is the most obvious effect, but it can also cause other problems. These chemicals can have a wide-ranging impact on the ocean ecosystem, from fertility problems in fish and sea urchins to the death of seaweed and other marine life. Downs says that sunscreens are far more harmful than commercial herbicides.
What is the difference between Chemical and Mineral Sunscreens,
Dhaval Bhanusali MD, dermatologist, says that mineral sunscreens (also known as physical) deflect UV rays, while chemical sunscreens absorb them and use heat for their destruction. Chemical sunscreens, on the other hand, are synthetic. Physical sunscreens like zinc oxide and titanium dioxide tend to be more natural. It is easiest to imagine old-school surfers or lifeguards with pure white zinc on their noses. Dr. Bhanusali, a dermatologist, prefers them because they sit on top of the skin. He says they better protect us, but people don’t like them as they create a barrier. Chemical sunscreens were created because they sink into the skin more easily and don’t leave a chalky, white cast. However, mineral sunscreens have improved in terms of their formulations. They are now made from nanoparticles, which reduce the size of minerals to a micro-level so that they can be absorbed into the skin faster and don’t leave a film.
Is a Sunscreen Reef Safe?
Remember that “reefsafe” is not a standard term. It’s a term created by marketers. Downs says that “reef safe” means that the product has been tested on reef organisms. Most companies don’t conduct that toxicity testing. If you see the word “reef safe” on a bottle, it means that it is free of oxybenzone or octinoxate. This is just a starting point, but it does not mean that it is the end-all-be-all. You can hedge your bets by looking at the ingredients to see if the sunscreen is purely mineral and contains zinc oxide or titanium dioxide. Sometimes formulas may include other chemicals like avobenzone. Also, check whether the ingredients are non-nano or nano. The sunscreen should only contain non-nano minerals sunscreens to be as safe as possible.