Eco-Friendly and Skin-Safe Sunscreen; What to Know and What to Look For

July 2021

You’ve most likely caught wind of the new movement to ban the sale of certain sunscreens with non-biodegradable active ingredients that can be potentially harmful to the environment. As of January, 2021, Hawaii was the first state to ban the sale of sunscreen containing two ingredients potentially harmful to the environment, oxybenzone and octinoxate. Key West enacted similar legislation soon after, and many other tourist locations have now mandated the use of “reef-safe” sunscreen, including the U.S. Virgin Islands, Aruba and parts of Mexico. So what’s the harm with using traditional sunscreen, and what should you look for when choosing a product to protect yourself and your loved ones from harmful UV rays?

According to the American Association of Dermatologists, the best way to protect yourself is to cover up; wear a wide-brimmed hat and clothing with SPF if possible, and stay out of direct sunlight between the hours of 10 am and 4 pm. After that, opt for a broad-spectrum, water-resistant sunscreen for all exposed skin and reapply every two hours, especially after sweating or swimming. Yet, there are unintended consequences to following the recommended guidelines for applying generous amounts of sunscreen; soon after, we often hit the surf or showers, where the sunscreen can enter our waterways and potentially harm local marine life.

Long-term exposure to concentrated levels of chemicals, such as oxybenzone and octinoxate, used in most drugstore sunscreens, can harm marine plants and animals. Research has shown that this exposure leads to oxidative stress, damaging cells and tissues and can disrupt reproductive and endocrine systems. Coral reef bleaching is a prominent example of this and the driving reason why places like Hawaii have banned the sale of any sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate.

Alternatively, “reef-safe” sunscreens use minerals as their active ingredients, such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide. These mineral-based sunscreen formulas, known more commonly as physical sunscreen, are labeled “reef-safe,” as they are not harmful to marine life and their ingredients are biodegradable. They act as a physical barrier or a shield to deflect the sun’s rays and sit on top of the skin to provide UV protection.

Chemical sunscreens, or traditional big-name brands, work differently by absorbing into the skin and working to fight UV rays below the surface. Many are skeptical of chemical sunscreens, fearing that ingredients such as oxybenzone, which absorb into the skin, are potentially harmful to humans when used long-term. Although dermatologists still recommend both types of sunscreen to patients, the AAD does recommend using a physical sunscreen if you have acne or sensitive skin, which is why many parents choose mineral-based sun protection for their little ones.

According to an FDA study on chemical sunscreen, the results of which were reported in January 2020, six active ingredients found in chemical sunscreen stay in the body for extended periods (avobenzone, oxybenzone, octocrylene, homosalate, octisalate and octinoxate). The FDA only recognizes two ingredients (zinc oxide and titanium dioxide) as safe and effective.

Two other ingredients (PABA and trolamine salicylate) are no longer recognized as safe and aren’t added to over-the-counter sunscreens.

At this time, insufficient information exists to determine whether or not the 12 remaining active ingredients currently used in sunscreen are safe and effective. Although the FDA is seeking additional information, the findings, “do not mean that the FDA has concluded that any of the ingredients tested are unsafe for use in sunscreens, nor does the FDA seeking further information indicate such.” If you have concerns about the safety of chemical sunscreen, or are traveling to an area that bans it, be sure to choose a mineral-based formula to throw in the suitcase.

Suggested sites for more information on the safety and efficacy of sunscreen:

U.S. Food and Drug Administration

American Academy of Dermatology Association

Save the Reef

National Ocean Service (NOAA)