“Is Your Sunscreen Killing Off Coral?”
Have you noticed headlines like this popping up everywhere? The recent news that Hawaii is banning sunscreen has brought a lot of attention to the environmental impact of sunscreen and the need for reef safe sunscreen.
But wait, Hawaii is banning sunscreen? How is that possible?
If you are like me, you grew up just after the “slather oil on yourself to get dark dark dark” period of the 1970’s and early 80’s, and have instead been told by your mother (and every facial aesthetician you’ve ever seen) that you should never, I mean never, leave the house without sunscreen on for fear of wrinkles and cancer. Even in a snowstorm in the dead of winter.
So how is it possible that a place like Hawaii, where its sunny 363 days a year, is banning sunscreen? Don’t fret, it’s not about giving up sunscreen – it’s about choosing a better sunscreen.
1964 Coppertone Suntan Lotion Advertisement, Playboy. June 1964.
Gone are the days of slathering on Coppertone and calling it good. And while there is no shortage of sunscreens on the market (have you looked at the aisle in Target recently?) the choice is not a straightforward one.
In recent years concerns about hormone disruption and environmental damage caused by the chemicals in traditional sunscreens has brought terms like “reef-friendly”, “mineral”, “non-nano zinc”, and “broad spectrum” to the market.
Are you confused about what ingredients in sunscreen are reef safe, why you need a better sunscreen and what to look for in choosing one? You are not alone.
Best Sunscreens for Surfers & Paddlers
As a paddler or surfer, you need a sunscreen to be waterproof, sweatproof, long-lasting, natural and eco-friendly. A bonus if it comes in a plastic-free container (#endplasticpollution) or the company has awesome business practices. But who has time to figure that out?
Luckily, I belong to a few Facebook groups for surfers, SUP paddlers, and moms, where the topic of the perfect sunscreen pops up often. I’ve compiled a list of 13 awesome eco-friendly sunscreens that come strongly recommended from experienced water athletes.
Here is a quick rundown of what makes a sunscreen reef-safe or eco-friendly, why you should be using one, and 13 safe sunscreen brands that have been tested and approved by real women who surf.
Reef Safe Sunscreen Ingredients
Most sunscreens on the market are chemical sunscreens. Typically they contain some of the following ingredients: oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate and octinoxate. When you apply these sunscreens, they penetrate your skin and those chemicals absorb and filter UVA and UVB rays from the sun.
There is some concern about the effect of these chemicals on human health. High levels of oxybenzone have been found in human bloodstreams among people who use products containing the chemical, and there is some evidence linking oxybenzone to lower testosterone, allergic skin reactions and birth outcomes (see the citations in this article by the Environmental Working Group). This area of research is fairly new and more studies are needed to have conclusive evidence of the effect of these chemicals on human health.
Physical or mineral sunscreens use zinc oxide and/or titanium dioxide as a physical barrier on your skin which reflects the suns rays. These sunscreens are the white ones you see on lifeguard noses in 80’s films. Since these sunscreens don’t penetrate your skin there is less worry about hormonal issues. In recent years, advances in using nanoparticles have made zinc-based sunscreens more transparent and easier to spread. However, keep reading to learn why you probably want to choose a non-nano type.
Why is Hawaii banning sunscreen?
An astonishing 14,000 tons of sunscreen gets washed off our bodies and into oceans near coral reefs each year. Those same chemicals in traditional sunscreen that protect you from cancer have been shown to be toxic to the algae that live within corals. This algae provides corals with their color and performs vital functions. Exposure to oxybenzone causes the corals to bleach and die (Downs 2016, Danovaro 2008).
And it doesn’t take much of these chemicals to cause problems for corals. In fact, according to Craig Downs, Executive Director of the Haereticus Environmental Laboratory, “oxybenzone can cause an adverse effect in coral at 62 parts per trillion. That is equivalent to one drop of water in 6 1/2 Olympic swimming pools.”
Concerned about the effect of sunscreen from its 8 million visitors per year on its already stressed coral reefs, Hawaii became the first state to pass a bill banning sunscreens that contain oxybenzone and octinoxate in May of 2018. If the bill is signed by the governor the law will go into effect Jan 1, 2021.
Reefs at Risk: What’s in your Sunscreen?
Reef-friendly sunscreen options
Luckily, there is a better option. Mineral sunscreens are better for the environment (and probably for your health too!) because they provide sun protection but don’t contain oxybenzone and octinoxate. Look for a zinc oxide based sunblock and always double check the ingredients list because some sunscreens labeled “Mineral” contain both zinc oxide and UV blocking chemicals too. Avoid those ones.
What is non-nano zinc?
You will likely come across sunscreens advertised as non-nano zinc products. Non-nano refers to the size of the zinc particles in the sunscreen. Nanoparticles (very small) make the sunscreen more transparent and easier to spread but may provide less defense against UVA. When your mineral sunscreen washes off the particles drop to the sea floor into the sediment. It is thought that nanoparticles (< 100 nanometers in size) can be ingested by corals. So the current recommendation is to use non-nano mineral sunscreens. However, there is still a lot to learn about the effects of nano and non-nano particles on the environment. If you dislike the white-ness of zinc oxide, try a tinted version that is common now with many companies. Also, terms like “reef friendly” and “non-nano zinc” are not currently regulated, so check the ingredients before buying.
How to buy sunscreen:
- Look for a mineral or physical sunscreen.
- Check the ingredients – avoid products with oxybenzone, avobenzone, octisalate, octocrylene, homosalate, and octinoxate.
- Look for a non-nano zinc oxide sunscreen.
- If you can use a rash guard or other cover-up to limit your sunscreen use- even better!
- Now get out and enjoy the water.
Best Ocean Friendly & Surfer Approved Sunscreens
All the sunscreens on this list are:
- physical mineral sunscreens that contain non-nano zinc
- made from natural and/or organic ingredients
- reef-friendly & eco-friendly
- and most importantly – are tested, approved and recommended by women who surf
This well-recommended product is made in the USA, is a 1% for the Planet memebr and comes in super ocean-friendly biodegradable packaging. This one is next on my list to try!
Buy it here: Avasol
Beautycounter recently released their new reef safe sunscreen, Counter Sun. I’ve been wearing it for a week now. The spray version works well and rubs in better than others I’ve tried. They have non-nano zinc in both stick and non-aerosol spray types. This brand has a few more ingredients than most of the other brands on this list, but they are highly rated by EWG and the company is politically active in promoting safer ingredients in the cosmetic industry.
Buy it here: Beautycounter
This paste sunscreen by Manda uses reef-friendly, organic, natural ingredients. It uses Thanaka, a traditional sun protector sourced from a tree in Myanmar as one of its main sun-blocking elements. It also contains non-nano zinc oxide. Manda comes as a paste and is visible when you put it on.
Buy it here: Manda
5. CocoAloha Surf
This all in one fusion sunscreen is made with all natural and organic ingredients and non-nano zinc by a woman surfer in Hawaii. Buy it directly from her on Etsy.
Buy it here: CocoAloha
Price: $9.50 – $22.50
6. Jungle Mama Naturals
This all natural, organic, non-nano zinc sunscreen stick boasts long-lasting coverage (80 minutes) and comes in a plastic-free package. Jungle Mama Naturals was started by two women surfers living in Costa Rica that needed a good sunscreen and couldn’t find one locally.
Buy it here: Jungle Mamas
Price: $19.99 – $24.99
8. Raw Elements
Raw Element’s mission is “To create the safest, most effective sunscreen on the planet”. Fans of this lifeguard-created sunscreen swear that it stays on in the water. And the company also contributes to 1% For the Planet. Hawaiian Airlines has teamed up with Raw Elements and hands out free samples to passengers!
Buy it here: Raw Elements
Tropic sport passes the US 80-minute water-resistance test and the Australian 120-minute water-resistance test, meaning more surf time!! It also comes in recyclable packaging.
Buy it here: TropicSport
Price: $9.29 – $29.99
There you go! Thirteen awesome brands to try this summer when you are in or on the water.
Now I want to hear from you. Do you have a preferred sunscreen brand that you love? Let me know! And if you want to get more gear and product reviews — and get the skinny on the eco-issues facing the ocean, sign up for my newsletter below!