It seems inevitable that in trying to live a “greener” life, you will encounter uncomfortable choices that you are loath to confront. Forsake travel, miss out. Quit coffee, massive headache. Limit showering, bad B.O.
Depending on which way you go, you might get burned. Perhaps literally, if you swear off sunscreen.
What’s wrong with sunscreen? The scientific consensus is that its components, which are designed to protect your skin, when washed off can do a nasty number on the environment.
Hanna Hamblen outlined sunscreen’s sustainability shortcomings on the website earth.org in March, with her blog headlined “The Environmental Impacts of Reef-Safe Sunscreen and How To Choose the Best One.” She explained that there are two main types of sunscreen: chemical based and mineral based.
Either type requires regular recoating and does not necessarily stay “on the job” for long. Hamblen expounds: “During recreational activities and water sports in natural waters, sunscreen washes off people’s skin to disperse in the surrounding environment. Some chemicals in the lotion can be absorbed through the skin and detected in urine within 30 minutes of application. Thus, they enter sewers or septic tanks when people flush the toilet or wash off sunscreen in the shower.
“In towns near bodies of water without sophisticated sewage treatment and water management systems, sunscreen pollution is inevitable.”
Hamblen reported that chemical sunscreens’ most common active ingredients are oxybenzone, butylparaben and octinoxate, all three of which can harm coral reefs and marine organisms. Sunscreen wearers can suffer ill effects from those chemicals, too. Writer Jessian Choy, in a 2020 online article for the Sierra Club, shared that “Oxybenzone and octinoxate can be absorbed by the body and have shown up in everything from urine to breast milk.”
Rather like natural gas is widely thought to be “greener” than fossil fuels, mineral-based sunscreens are touted as superior to their chemical cousins. However, just as is the case with natural gas, mineral-based sunscreens are problematical.
Zinc oxide and titanium dioxide, the blogger wrote, are mineral-based sunscreens’ most common ingredients. That thin white coating you see on people’s bodies is likely one of those inorganic compounds. Either one, Hamblen reports, “can be toxic to corals, fish and other reef organisms. Their small size, interaction with cells, and the fact that they cause oxidative stress in sunlight (coral bleaching) damages hard corals and their symbiotic algae.”
So what’s an environmentally conscientious sun worshipper supposed to do? Choy recommends sunscreens made by Raw Elements, whose sustainability leanings include not just the product but its packaging.
Hamblen also recommends Raw Elements, while also having supportive things to say about Raw Love Sunscreen (100 percent organic, plant-based ingredients) and Hello Bello’s Sunscreen Mineral Lotion. She cautions against spray-on sunscreens, writing, “Do not use spray-on sunscreen. While spray-on sunscreens are popular for their easy application, they are one of the worst possible options. Much of the stream ends up in the environment without ever protecting anyone’s skin. It is also unhealthy to inhale.”
Hamblen’s tough-love advice?
“Cover exposed skin with hats and long sleeves rather than wearing sunscreen. While this is the only truly environmentally friendly option, skin cancer is still a concern on the face, neck and hands.”
Another option? Shade. Let’s call it the new sunscreen.