Sunscreen: Eco Implications

18 March 2019 By Lauren Beck

In recent years, sunscreen has come under increased scrutiny for its detrimental effects on marine life. According to the journal Archives of Environmental Contamination and Toxicology, 14,000 tons of sunscreen ends up in the oceans from human use.

“Studies have identified UV filters such as oxybenzone, octocrylene, octinoxate, and ethylhexyl salicylate in almost all water sources around the world and have commented that these filters are not easily removed by common wastewater treatment plant techniques,” the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology (JAAD) reports. “Additionally, in laboratory settings, oxybenzone has been implicated specifically as a possible contributor to coral reef bleaching.” Additional UV filters, including oxybenzone, octocrylene, and octinoxate, have been discovered in various fish species “which has possible consequences for the food chain,” JAAD maintains.

To combat this issue, “reef toxic” sunscreens have been banned in some parts of the world. Hawaii has banned sunscreen containing oxybenzone and octinoxate, both of which are known to harm coral and are reportedly found in more than 3,500 sunscreen products. The Hawaiian law is set to take effect in January 2021. According to the Miami Herald, the Florida Legislature is also considering a state-wide ban on sunscreens containing the two chemicals, but Key West has already moved forward with its ban, which is set to be implemented on January 1, 2021. The Miami Herald also reports that Miami Beach is currently considering a ban. In Micronesia, Palau has also enacted a sunscreen ban to take effect in 2020.

One dermatologist urges caution, however. “Oxybenzone, which is one of the best protective filters available, is contained in ninety percent of the top-rated sunscreens,” says Dr. Jerome R. Obed, DO, a board-certified dermatologist at Broward Dermatology & Cosmetic Specialists in Fort Lauderdale. “The current controversy stems from the effects this UV filter has on coral reefs. While some of the data is quite alarming, there does not appear to be enough evidence yet to warrant changes to our recommendations. We certainly all want our oceans to be safe, but the existing data appears insufficient, and thus more research is necessary before making changes to an already challenging public health issue.”

But if you want to get ahead of the curve, the good news is that there are sunscreens available that are more environmentally friendly. Haereticus Environmental Lab (HEL) and the Environmental Working Group (EWG) publish guides for safe sunscreens, so make sure you consult them before making a purchase. HEL certifies products as Protect Land + Sea (PL+S), which means the product has been lab tested by HEL “using analytical‐forensic techniques” to verify that the product is free from chemicals on its HEL list, which include microplastics, nanoparticles, oxybenzone, etc. All ingredients on this list pose a threat to ecosystem health, HEL maintains.

In general, keep in mind that mineral-based sunscreens containing titanium dioxide and zinc oxide are safer than oxybenzone, and non-nano particles are better as they cannot be ingested by coral. Some sunscreens contain both nano and non-nano particles, so check out the Consumer Products Inventory, which offers a database of nanoparticle products, to make sure you’re making an informed choice.

As attention has increasingly turned to sunscreens and their formulations, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has proposed updating U.S. sunscreen regulations. In a press announcement, the FDA states that the proposal “addresses sunscreen active ingredient safety, dosage forms, and sun protection factor (SPF) and broad-spectrum requirements. It also proposes updates to how products are labeled to make it easier for consumers to identify key product information.”

According to EWG, this would be “a big step toward cleaning up a largely unregulated industry with much-needed reforms that would better protect public health.” Sunscreens typically protect against both ultraviolet B (UVB) and ultraviolet A (UVA) rays, but the U.S. has lagged behind European standards when it comes to UVA protection. UVB rays cause sunburn and have strong links to malignant melanoma and basal cell carcinoma risk, the British Association for Dermatologists (BAD) reports. “UVA can penetrate window glass and penetrates the skin more deeply than UVB,” BAD says. “UVA protection in a sunscreen will help defend the skin against photo ageing and potentially skin cancer.”

Many U.S. products don’t meet the European standards for broad-spectrum coverage. “Some of these chemicals appear to offer significant performance advantages over the sunscreen chemicals the federal Food and Drug Administration permits in products sold on the American market. Only two of the FDA-approved ingredients filter UVA rays,” EWG writes on its site.

The options are out there, so it comes down to choice and what works for you. But if the more environmentally friendly options exist and provide excellent coverage, why not try one out?