Seeking Health-Safe Sunscreen

By Ella Stainton

Throughout this past semester at Woodstock Union High School I have been pursuing an independent study examining sunscreen’s true effects on both people and the environment, particularly its impacts on coral reefs. This project was sparked by an academic program that I participated in during the summer of 2022 at the Island School in the Bahamas. This was the first time I got to live in a tropical environment, and I loved it!

One of the main things that I took away from this program was learning to scuba dive and seeing the coral reefs and marine ecosystems of which I had previously only ever seen videos. While I was there, I also learned about sunscreen from one of my mentors, Dan Baldwin, who taught us that some ingredients in sunscreen are harmful to coral. Coral gets its color from algae. When chemicals are introduced to the water it can cause the coral to expel the algae, which can make it bleach and eventually kill it. When I purchased sunscreen for my time in the Bahamas, I went out of my way to make sure that I bought one that was labeled “reef safe” or “reef friendly,” but when I arrived and we all looked at the ingredients I was shocked to find out that my sunscreen was not reef friendly. As it turned out, it contained avobenzone, homosalate, octisalate, and octocrylene—all of which have been shown to be damaging. This means there is a lot of false advertising about sunscreen.

When I got home, I wanted to learn more about sunscreen, including how sunscreens containing chemicals that are harmful to reefs are regulated. According to the Smithsonian, 14,000 tons of sunscreen are introduced into aquatic ecosystems around the world each year. In some places, such as Hawaii or the U.S. Virgin Islands, some sunscreen ingredients—oxybenzone, octinoxate, and octocrylene—are restricted. This means that sunscreen with these ingredients cannot be sold there. But, it is not a ban on their overall use. Through my research I also looked at “reef safe” advertising. What I found is that there is no regulation for using the “reef safe” label, and that companies are using it even when their sunscreen is not reef-safe. As my research continued, I discovered many more problems with sunscreen ingredients, even finding that sunscreen is not only harming our environment, but our bodies.

Whenever you apply sunscreen, there are instructions to wait before entering the water. But regardless of the time you wait, the sunscreen still comes off your skin when you are in the water. The chemicals in sunscreen cause harm to aquatic life in both saltwater and freshwater environments. A study by the University of Alberta determined that some of the ingredients in sunscreen can be fatal to freshwater organisms. According to NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) sunscreen ingredients have many devastating impacts on aquatic life, such as decreasing fertility and respiration in fish, impairing growth and photosynthesis in green algae, and damaging immune systems and reproduction in sea urchins.

Sunscreen not only affects our environment, but also our bodies. Ingredients in sunscreen—such as: oxybenzone, avobenzone, homosalate and octocrylene—should be avoided when buying sunscreen for the summer. All of these chemicals are either endocrine disruptors or potential endocrine disruptors. As defined by the National Institute of Health, endocrine disruptors are chemicals that interfere with or mimic the body’s hormones. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, these disruptors can cause problems such as developmental malformations, interference with reproduction, increased risk of cancer, and faults in the immune system and nervous system function. According to a recent Yale University article it is said that octocrylene is also suspected to be a carcinogen, this means that it has the ability to cause cancer. Additionally, these chemicals bioaccumulate over time which means the more your body gets introduced too, the higher the levels of the chemicals in your body.

All of these active ingredients should be considered potentially harmful. Until we have research to back up the assumption of how harmless these ingredients are, we should be cautious about using them on a large scale. Because these chemicals comprise just some of the many ingredients in sunscreen, further research is required to determine whether any of them are safe for the environment and human health.

Sunscreen is something that is supposed to protect us, not hurt us. So what can we do to protect ourselves and our children? Dan, the sunscreen expert at the Island School, makes his own! He says that it is fun, using a base of zinc oxide powder (non-nano) and then some coconut oil and beeswax to hold the powder in a paste. If you do not want to make your own sunscreen, I also researched a few name brands that—although are not perfect—are an improvement. Some brands like Blue Lizard, Stream2Sea, and Badger are more healthy and are easily found online and in stores that sell sunscreen.

The common ingredients in most sunscreens are harmful to aquatic life, such as the organisms that form and live in coral reefs. Photo by Francesco Ungaro on Unsplash.

Ella Stainton, a Junior at Woodstock Union High School, is involved with student government and is a member of the National Honor Society.


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