Lack of regulation over sunscreen safety claims, make it very difficult for consumers to navigate the ever-growing greenwashing trend within the sunscreen industry. Shopping for a sunscreen that is safe for our children and reef safe can be overwhelming. We recommend following these simple guidelines to help you navigate the world of safe sunscreens.
Rather than searching for a term like “biodegradable,” which can be misleading, look at the active ingredients list. Chemical sunscreens present health risks and contribute to coral bleaching. Of specific concern, Oxybenzone, aka phenobenzone-3, penetrates the skin, as demonstrated by the Hayden study popularized by the EWG. The Australian study concludes, “It would be prudent not to apply oxybenzone to large surface areas of skin for extended and repeated periods of time, unless no alternative protection is available.
There may be an additional concern for young children who have less well developed processes of elimination, and have a larger surface area per body weight than adults, with respect to systemic availability of a topically applied dose” (Hayden 1997). Oxybenzone is a penetration enhancer, which means that it not only penetrates skin (in 2008, the US Centers for Disease Control & Prevention conducted an experiment on a national scale and found the chemical compound to be present in 96.8% of the human urine samples surveyed) but it enhances the penetration potential of other toxic chemicals like preservatives methyl and propyl paraben.
Mineral sunscreens commonly contain nanoparticles <100nm in size. Based on a growing body of research, the evidence is mounting that nanoparticles are not safe for either the public or the environment. An article appearing June 11, 2012 in Science Daily reports on ground-breaking research by scientists at Trinity College Dublin which indicates that “exposure to nanoparticles can have a serious impact on health, linking it to rheumatoid arthritis and the development of other serious autoimmune disease.” Another in vivo study documents negative effects on mice ranging from generation of reactive oxygen species in brain microglia to symptoms of acute toxicity after oral administration. These toxic effects were most pronounced with particles in the 25 to 80 nm range. For sunscreen users, be aware that particles come in a range of sizes rather than one uniform size. This means that in order to ensure that particle sizes in your products do not go below the 80 nm mark, you need to look for a mean particle size of around 200 to 250nm (it has been our experience that the primary particle size may range as much as 100 -250 nm in either direction). If you’re not sure of the mean primary particle size in the products that you are using, ask the manufacturer.
Zinc oxide is a mineral that provides complete UVB/UVA protection, has anti-inflammatory properties, and is the only FDA approved sunscreen for use on children under 6 months of age. While zinc oxide is of course not “biodegradable” (zinc is an element), mineral sunscreens are a less risky option for use around sensitive coral reefs than sunscreens containing UV filters known to cause coral bleaching. Florida biochemist Celia Ferreira, Ph.D., urges beach-goers "to choose a biodegradable sunscreen whose ingredients break down in seawater, and uses ingredients such as titanium dioxide and zinc oxide rather than petrochemicals."
The EWG says high SPF ratings can be misleading, tempting you to stay out in the sun too long and incurring damage not immediately visible. The American Cancer Society recommends going with an SPF 15 to 30 and "reapplying often."
Image source: Coral Reef Diversity
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