Photo: Person on a Beach with Sunscreen in the Shape of an Exclamation Point

by Manjari Fergusson

While you might think slathering on sunscreen before a day at the beach is a good idea, it turns out it might actually be harmful – not only to your health, but to the health of coral and marine life.

That’s according to a study last year in the Journal of Environmental Science and Technologyi that found the chemicals used in sunscreen accumulate in the ocean, becoming toxic. Under the heat of the sun’s rays, the chemicals react to produce high amounts of hydrogen peroxide. This compound, commonly used in household cleaning products, causes stress and affects the growth of phytoplankton – plants that are a vital part of the underwater world. Researchers found high amounts of hydrogen peroxide in the Mediterranean after the height of tourist season, when thousands of people descended onto the beaches covered in sunscreen.

Another studyii from last year found that nanoparticles from sunscreen amass in the reefs, endangering coral.

Researchers at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) National Centers for Coastal Ocean Scienceiii have found that the chemical benzophenone-2 (BP-2) kills young coral; this chemical has been used frequently since the1960’s in many body care products and makeup, in addition to sunscreen.

Not only do these chemicals have the potential to wreak havoc on the environment, they aren’t so great for your skin either. Studiesiv have shown that several commonly used sunscreen chemicals can disrupt the hormone system. The most problematic of these chemicals is oxybenzone, which permeates the skin, affecting hormones and potentially causing allergic reactions.

Common sunscreen chemicals to avoid include: oxybenzone, octylmethyl cinnamate, 4-methylbenzylidene camphor, and butylparaben. Other active chemical ingredients to watch out for and avoid are: avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. These similarly penetrate the skin.

So what can you do? Going without sunscreen is not the answer; melanoma skin cancer is one of the deadliest cancers, and one of the most common in young adults.v Instead, use sunscreens that don’t contain harmful chemicals.

To help you determine what sunscreen to use, the Environmental Working Groupvi puts out a sunscreen guide every year that can help identify the best sunscreen for you. Here at Down to Earth, we only carry sunscreens that aren’t bad for you or the environment, including from Alba, Badger, Elemental Herbs, Goddess Garden, The Honest Company, Climb On, Accure Organics, and Mychelle.

Footnotes: 
  1. Environ. Sci. Technol., 2014, 48 (16), pp 9037–9042, DOI: 10.1021/es5020696 Publication Date (Web): July 28, 2014 http://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es5020696
  2. Environmental Toxicology, “Effects of titanium dioxide (TiO2) nanoparticles on caribbean reef-building coral (Montastraea faveolata)”, Boris Jovanović1,* and Héctor M. Guzmán2, 22 APR 2014 DOI: 10.1002/etc.2560
  3. NOAA National Ocean Service, “Sunscreen Chemical Threatens Coral Reefs” http://oceanservice.noaa.gov/news/feb14/sunscreen.html
  4. The Environmental Working Group, “The Trouble With Sunscreen Chemicals”, 2015. https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen
  5. American Melanoma Foundation, “Facts About Melanoma” 2009.
  6. The Environmental Working Group, “EWG’s 2015 Guide to Sunscreens” https://www.ewg.org/sunscreen