Skip the plastic, opt for paper, and bring cloth bags to the grocery store. But there’s other things that add to pollution, they just don’t get enough media coverage to be common knowledge.
Sunscreen is a bigger problem than people think.
Regardless of how much you apply, some of it is going to wash off in the saltwater at the beach, and it’s not just going to magically vaporize into nothingness.
It flows through the water that flows through marine life gills, and it isn’t good.
We’re going to look over the different ways that it pollutes the water, how it affects coral reefs, and how to stop it.
- 1 How Sunscreen Pollutes the Water
- 2 How Sunscreen Pollution Destroys Coral Reefs
- 3 How Biodegradable Sunscreen Helps Your Skin
- 4 About “Lab-Made” Sunscreens and Other Labels
- 5 What is the Best Natural Sunscreen?
- 6 What Sunscreen is Best for the Environment?
- 7 Is There Any 100% Reef-Safe Sunscreen?
- 8 How Big is This Problem?
- 9 Growing Problems
How Sunscreen Pollutes the Water
Sunscreen is designed to stay on your skin, but some of the ingredients are actually just carriers that help you apply the main ingredients to your skin.
Certain common ingredients, like oxybenzone, are absorbed into your skin within a few minutes and protect you.
Others leave a greasy feeling on your skin, and wash off in the water. If you’ve ever looked up sunscreen online, one of the key phrases that they use to sell them to you is “Non-greasy feeling.”
Those tend to have more absorptive properties that sink right into your skin and offer you protection, but there are likely still chemicals that sit on top of your skin, giving a slick or lotiony feeling.
That’s where the first problem with non-biodegradable sunscreen lies. The grease is sitting on top of your skin, meaning it will get washed away just like anything else.
Those elements aren’t being absorbed into your skin, and they’re not dissipating in the water, either.
Sunscreen can leave a sheen on top of the water in destination beach spots after tourists have left for the season.
You have thousands of people wearing sunscreen every single day, and washing it off in the water.
Not only does it give the water a polluted feeling on your skin, but it actually has detrimental consequences on marine life. It’s harder for sunlight to penetrate the water.
On average, sea creatures that depend on light live somewhere above the 656 ft mark in the ocean, but light can travel even deeper than that, down to 3,280 feet, which is more than half a mile into the water.
So it’s blocking light, but that’s not all.
Non-biodegradable sunscreen contains varying chemicals that can de-oxygenate the water, adding to the growing dead zone problem that we’re facing around the world.
A dead zone is when marine life can’t survive above a certain level in the water, because they’re either not getting enough, or not getting any oxygen at all.
Even creatures that exist beneath the dead zones have difficulties, because sunlight is required for the production of algae, which is a staple in the diet of many fish.
Algae requires very little other than sunlight: a few nutrients, carbon dioxide (which is given off by fish that can breath in non-damaged parts of the ocean), and that’s about it.
Sunlight is roughly 95% of the equation, and if sunlight isn’t penetrating the water, algae isn’t going to grow.
How Sunscreen Pollution Destroys Coral Reefs
Dead zones, algae growth, and ecosystem thrown out of balance—it doesn’t stop there.
Our coral reefs are in constant danger, but the effects of sunscreen in the water are contributing more than you might think.
Coral reefs are made up of calcium carbonate, which is a rough, concrete-like substance that takes a while to grow. Damage to coral reefs aren’t something simple that can be reversed.
You can clean up plastic from the forest, incorporate organic compost, and do your best to rejuvenate the area in a calendar year—coral reefs take thousands of years to form, with some dating back to 240 million years ago.
So what is sunscreen doing to them?
Altering the DNA and production of coral, and it’s not for the better. At a certain point, you have polyps of calcium carbonate, which slowly expands over time.
Eventually, certain polyps will solidify, essentially encasing themselves in a stone exoskeleton.
At this point, other polyps can grow on it, turning the original polyp into a foundation or base for coral reefs.
However, non-biodegradable sunscreens are messing with the DNA that dictates appropriate times to solidify, so polyps are hardening far before they are supposed to.
If a coral reef used to take five-thousand years to form, now it’s going to take six. The more the DNA is altered, the longer it will take for these reefs to fully form.
One of the most harmful ingredients in non-biodegradable sunscreens is oxybenzone, which is precisely what alters that DNA.
Studies and research show that there’s a higher concentration of oxybenzone above coral reefs that are close to the shore, which are the reefs that we rely on the most to bring marine life closer to land for us to catch and consume.
It’s more than just a coral reef problem, it’s about to be a human problem as well. Oxybenzone comes back into this full circle regarding algae.
Even without that sheen on top of the water, oxybenzone can still damage algae, as well as sea urchins and other marine life. It all upsets the balance.
If oxybenzone were the only problem, it would be easier to remove from sunscreen products.
Other harmful chemicals include methoxycinnamate, which absorbs and traps harmful UVB rays, and camphors, which kill fungus.
Methoxycinnamate is not water soluble, meaning it will just eternally hang around and not break down simply through water.
Because it’s designed to repel the damage of UVB rays, it can’t even break down from sunlight: it just doesn’t go away.
There are different pieces of scientific literature on the subject, but the conclusion is basically that we don’t know how long, if at all, it will take for methoxycinnamate to eventually dissolve.
Camphors are there to kill fungus, preventing athlete’s foot and other fungal infections while you’re enjoying the water.
Coral reef polyps rely on multiple forms of fungi to continually grow, despite their extremely slow speed.
We know that polyps are hardening far too soon from DNA damage, but another reason is that camphors inhibit the growth of endoliths in coral, which is how calcium carbonate is altered.
How Biodegradable Sunscreen Helps Your Skin
We know that they’re better for the environment, but they’re also better for your skin.
The FDA regulates safe levels of chemicals that manufacturers can legally use in sunscreens and other products.
These are the same people who regulate tap water (which is why we buy external filtration systems). The point is, they don’t take it seriously enough.
Regardless of what levels are deemed safe, non-natural chemicals still affect your skin.
That can be a real problem if you don’t have perfect skin, say if you have psoriasis or eczema, or any skin condition/disease for that matter.
Organic compounds and botanicals help to rehydrate your skin while also repelling UVA and UVB rays, and lessen the amount of irritation that saltwater can cause.
About “Lab-Made” Sunscreens and Other Labels
There’s a lot of online literature out there that tries to dissuade users from purchasing lab-made biodegradable sunscreen.
They somehow poise lab-made as a dirty term, when in fact it’s just a manufacturing method. It’s no different from purchasing other sunscreens, which are usually also lab-made.
The difference is in the ingredients.
Natural, biodegradable sunscreen is a bit more costly in terms of resources for brands to create, and their facilities are already built around chemical-made sunscreens that pollute the waters.
The only way that companies adopt new techniques of manufacturing is when they realize that the majority of consumers are opting for higher quality, differently manufactured goods.
Basically, the more of us that buy biodegradable sunscreen from smaller brands, the most pressure there is on larger brands to change their tactic for manufacturing.
In no way is lab-made a bad term, it’s just a marketing tactic against natural products. However, there are some terms that you should be on the lookout for.
We always hear about minerals being good for us, but that’s not necessarily the case when you’re slathering them on your body.
One such mineral in some sunscreens is titanium dioxide, a common element also found in deodorants.
On its own, this natural mineral isn’t bad, but in high quantities and alongside chemicals, it can be harmful.
Its most potent harm is through inhalation, where it acts as a carcinogen in the human body.
It’s not harmful in low doses, but if you’re applying sunscreen every single day, all summer long, it’s best to go with a natural sunscreen.
If it does include minerals, try to stay away from titanium dioxide to the best of your ability.
We all know this term, but it doesn’t mean what you think.
When we hear organic, we think of 100%, perfectly eco-friendly materials that weren’t made with any chemicals or processing.
That’s far from the truth. You can have organic botanical elements in sunscreen, but everything needs to be bound together with some amount of chemicals.
The question is if those chemicals are biodegradable or naturally occuring.
After our discussion about coral reefs and the damage that they’re undergoing, this is a label that you actually want to look for.
This means that there is no presence of oxybenzone, octinoxate, octocrylene, butyl-paraben, and 4-methylbenzylidene, which are all coral reef killers.
Reef-safe or reef-friendly sunscreens are a step in the right direction, but they also need to be biodegradable so they don’t damage the waters for marine life.
What is the Best Natural Sunscreen?
While every sunscreen is going to contain some form of chemical intervention and processing, a natural sunscreen sticks to as many organic ingredients as possible.
When your sunscreen does break down from saltwater, it won’t leave behind chemical remnants that harm marine life.
One of the best natural sunscreens out there is Neutrogena’s Sheer Zinc Oxide Dry-Touch Sunscreen Lotion.
It includes a base SPF 30 rating, as well as a faster absorption time than most zinc oxide sunscreens on the market.
Like many biodegradable personal health products, it’s a bit pricier than the dollar store counterparts.
That being said, it’s virtually impossible for these natural ingredients to irritate your skin or bring on a reaction.
What Sunscreen is Best for the Environment?
The difficulty that manufacturers face is making sunscreen actually effective, while using organic botanicals that help them break down.
Chemical elements are quick ways to block UVA and UVB rays from penetrating and damaging your skin, but one of the primary ingredients in skin-safe, biodegradable sunscreen is zinc oxide.
If you get a sunscreen that contains this, you’re likely going to have to rub it into your skin, but it’ll do the trick without harming the ecosystem when it washes off in the ocean.
One excellent representation of everything that’s good in a reef-safe sunscreen is Bare Republic’s mineral SPF 30 blend.
It does contain titanium oxide, though it is in extremely low levels and not interacting with harmful chemicals as it would in other sunscreens.
This containers zinc oxide, and a water repellent feature that lasts for about eighty minutes before wearing off.
In a nutshell, it meets all the requirements of being a safe, biodegradable sunscreen, while still having the features that consumers are after.
It’s an excellent representation of having your cake and eating it too.
Is There Any 100% Reef-Safe Sunscreen?
No, such a thing doesn’t exist.
Biodegradable sunscreen is wildly safer than chemical-ridden sunscreen, but it’s not perfect.
If manufacturers took all of the organic, botanical ingredients that they use and just mashed them up into a paste, it wouldn’t be sellable or nearly as effective at protecting your skin.
If you have a thousand people in the ocean at the same time, each with oxybenzone sunscreen that’s washing into the water, that’s a big problem.
If you have a thousand people in the ocean at the same time, each with biodegradable and organic sunscreen, that’s a smaller problem.
There may never be a time when humans have zero impact on the environment, but biodegradable sunscreen drastically mitigates damage to the ocean and our coral reefs.
If you’re going to the beach, you need sunscreen, of course. Just understand that it’s still going to leave a mark on the environment, just a significantly smaller one.
If we can slow the pace of our damage to the oceans, the hope is that our cleanup efforts will match pace with our destructive habits, and eventually exceed them.
Use biodegradable sunscreen, and try to use as little as is necessary to minimize pollution.
How Big is This Problem?
It is estimated that over 5,000 tons of sunscreen wash off of swimmers each and every year.
Considering that you’re buying 10 oz aerosol cans and you never use the whole thing, think of how many swimmers and just how much sunscreen that truly is.
That’s just off of swimmers. What happens when you rinse off at beach showers, or when you get home?
All of that sunscreen is going through the drain, and is rarely picked up by water processing plants.
Estimations rise from 5,000 tons to nearly 14,000 tons per year when you factor in all the variables.
Considering that some of the most popular non-biodegradable sunscreen brands (Coppertone, Banana Boat, Sun Bum) have a 6% oxybenzone concentration, that’s 1,680 pounds of pure oxybenzone that enters the ocean each year.
Since these sunscreens are targeting coral reefs, we are already seeing the effects of diminished and destroyed marine life that directly pertains to the continued existence of humanity.
Coral reefs are a key staple in the ocean ecosystem, and help to recycle CO2 (carbon dioxide) in the water. Coral reefs are to fish what trees are to humans—oxygen recycling sources.
If that doesn’t put enough gravity on the situation, perhaps this will: by 2050 (which is not that far away), we can expect to see 90% of the world’s coral reefs destroyed or far beyond repair through natural means.
If we don’t minimize our impact, over the next few decades, the oceans will pass a breaking point that won’t be easy to redeem.
It’s taken far too long for this to be addressed.
Recently, Hawaii lawmakers passed a bill that outright bans certain chemicals used in harmful sunscreen development, but this is a step that should have been taken years ago.
You can be safe from harmful UV rays and protect the environment at the same time, without inhibiting the growth of coral reefs any further than we already have.