Many chemicals found in sunscreen have adverse effects on the environment. Specifically, chemical sunscreen with harmful active ingredients and physical sunscreen containing “nano” particles. Research has shown harmful interactions between these ingredients and marine life.
Why should I care, living in a landlocked state? When you shower, your wastewater will eventually make it to the ocean. Water treatment facilities do not filter out all of these harmful chemicals. You should care if you want your children or future generations to be able to go diving and experience coral reefs.
A study, published in the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, found Oxybenzone, a common ingredient in chemical sunscreen also known as Benzophenone-3 (BP-3), to have adverse effects on coral reefs. They studied bleaching of the coral reefs, DNA/genetic damage, abnormal skeleton growth, and deformed juvenile coral.
A study, published in Advances in Polar Science, found that Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3 or BP-3), had adverse effects on marine life such as algae. BP-3 affected growth rate and physically changed cell structures.
A study, published in the journal Ecotoxicology, found that benzophenone-2 (BP-2), a common preservative in body care, cosmetics, and fragrances, can significantly impact coral reef health. BP-2 is not filtered out of wastewater and inevitably threatens the coasts of the Caribbean and the Indo-Pacific. Low concentrations of BP-2 can kill juvenile coral, bleach coral, and cause DNA/genetic mutation.
A nanoparticle is a particle with a microscopic diameter – Nanoparticles are used in some physical sunscreens to reduce the opaque white layer sunscreen can leave on skin. Nanoparticles enter an environment much easier than conventional sized particles. The effects of nanoparticles on the environment have not been studied enough for us to understand the impact. Sunscreen labels do not usually specify if it contains nanoparticles.
Research by the NOAA has suggested sunscreen chemicals harm sea urchins by damaging immune and reproductive systems, and deforming juvenile sea urchins. Fish may be affected by decreased fertility and reproduction. Traces of chemical sunscreen have been found in dolphin tissue. The affects of chemical sunscreen on ecosystems as a whole cannot be completely measured because there are so many species and different kinds of marine life.
The best thing you can do for the environment is to use sunscreen products more efficiently. Covering up and leaving less skin exposed to the sun will reduce the amount of sunscreen used. Seeking shade and limiting sun exposure during peak hours (between 10-2) is probably better for your skin anyways! Making educated choices when buying sunscreen can reduce environmental impact.
Zinc based physical sunscreens are the safest option for the environment – specifically labeled “reef-safe” or “non-nano.” A list of reef-safe sunscreens can be found here.
Sanitas is an eco-friendly skincare line based out of Boulder, CO. Their Solar Block contains 15% Zinc Oxide and does not contain chemical sunscreen ingredients.
Downs, C.A., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Segal, R. et al. Toxicopathological Effects of the Sunscreen UV Filter, Oxybenzone (Benzophenone-3), on Coral Planulae and Cultured Primary Cells and Its Environmental Contamination in Hawaii and the U.S. Virgin Islands. Arch Environ Contam Toxicol 70, 265–288 (2016).
Downs, C.A., Kramarsky-Winter, E., Fauth, J.E. et al. Toxicological effects of the sunscreen UV filter, benzophenone-2, on planulae and in vitro cells of the coral, Stylophora pistillata . Ecotoxicology 23, 175–191 (2014).
Teoh, Ming Li & Sanusi, Suhaida & Wong, Ching-Yee & Beardall, John. (2020). Effects of the sunscreen ultraviolet filter, oxybenzone, on green microalgae. Advances in Polar Science. 31.