How your sunscreen impacts the oceans & what to do about it By Lucy Picken

Now that summer is here, it is important that we are wearing sunscreen to protect ourselves against harmful rays. However, it is also important to consider the environmental impacts at the same time.

The Environmental Impacts of Sunscreen

It is estimated that approximately 14,000 tons of sunscreen enter our oceans each year; when we swim or jump into oceans or other waterways, some of the sunscreen we apply washes off into the water. It has also been found that even if you don’t swim after applying sunscreen, it can be washed down drains when you shower, eventually entering our waterways.

When we swim with sunscreen on, chemicals such as oxybenzone can enter waterways, where they’re then able to be absorbed by corals. These chemicals contain something called nanoparticles that can cause impacts such as disrupting coral’s reproduction and growth cycles, which can lead to coral bleaching.

The majority of sunscreen brands contain oxybenzone, which is a UV filtering compound that is harmful to the environment as it can be fatal to baby reefs and damaging to adult reefs (coral reefs host and home to more than 25% of all marine life [Source]). Other sunscreen ingredients (including oxybenzone) are also believed to cause other impacts such as those shown in the graphic below.

Marine life is important to us, as scientists have estimated that roughly half of the oxygen production on Earth comes from the ocean, with the majority of this production coming from oceanic plankton [Source]. As well as this, coral reefs are estimated to directly or indirectly support over 1 billion people worldwide from the ecosystem services they provide [source].

A further environmental concern about sunscreen is that it commonly comes in single-use plastic bottles, which often end up in landfill. Unfortunately, a lot of sunscreens also contain microplastics, which are then washed into our waterways and oceans, ultimately being ingested by marine life.

The world’s coral reefs and marine life are suffering, and chemicals and plastics commonly found in sunscreen contribute to the problem.

Types of Sunscreen

There are two kinds of sunscreen commonly available in stores and online:

Chemical (organic): Chemical sunscreens are the most commonly used sunscreen. They absorb and reduce UV rays’ ability to penetrate the skin. Ingredients in chemical sunscreens often include: Oxybenzone and Octinoxate.

Physical (mineral or inorganic): The second type of common sunscreens, sometimes marketed as ‘reef safe’, are less popular than chemical sunscreens but block or reflect both UVA and UVB rays. Ingredients in physical sunscreens often include: Zinc Oxide and Titanium Dioxide.

What Can Be Done?

Some destinations, such as Hawaii and Palau, ban harmful sunscreens. The focus has been on two chemicals, the UV filters Oxybenzone and Octinoxate; Hawaii banned these UV filters in 2021 and Palau announced a ban in 2020.

When you are buying your next sunscreen, consider shopping more sustainably with these tips:

  • Ingredients – Avoid sunscreens that contain Oxybenzone and Octinoxate. Look for “reef safe” sunscreen that is made without oxybenzone and/or octinoxate and instead look for non-nano zinc oxide and titanium dioxide-based physical / mineral sunscreens produced by transparent companies.
  • Spray-on sunscreen – The stream often ends up going everywhere and ending up in the environment. Aerosols and spray-on sunscreen fall to the ground or sand, where it can easily then wash into our waterways or ocean.
  • Choose plastic-free packaging – Where possible, opt for recyclable and/or non-plastic options.
  • Check if there are microplastics – Use the ‘Beat the microbead’ app to check for ingredients commonly considered to be microplastics.
  • Cover up – Cover your skin with clothing such as hats and long sleeves but it is important that exposed skin still has sunscreen applied.
  • Seek shade – Pick shaded spots or bring items such as umbrellas or beach tents to create your own shade.

Final thoughts

It is important to protect ourselves from UV rays but it is also important to understand that some sunscreens cause damage to marine life. It might not feel as though you are making a huge difference, but by making small changes to our everyday lives, we can reduce our environmental impact and make positive steps to supporting sustainability.

Interested in a discovery call to align your sustainability commitments? Get in touch with Lucy today.

For more information

Lucy Picken
Consultant Researcher

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